Genetic engineering, or equivalently synthetic biology, is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise involved in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, biofuels and, of course, agriculture. In these fields, it is already the source of a great deal of controversy. But there is increasing interest in using synthetic biology (or synbio) technology as a tool for protecting the natural world, which is a prospect some find tantalizing and others find absolutely terrifying.
Mosquito-borne diseases pose a growing risk to public health in urban areas. Asian tiger mosquitoes are a vector of high concern as they thrive in cities, live in close association with people, and can reproduce in very small pools of water.
With summer comes mosquitoes and our desire to keep them away from us. The most common repellents are based on the chemical DEET, which unfortunately has been found to have several health and safety problems. Up to 15% of DEET is absorbed through the skin directly into the bloodstream. Diethyl-meta-toluamide, the chemical name for DEET, has been shown to have a variety of toxic effects. Fortunately, it turns out that there are some natural alternatives which may be as effective as DEET, or possibly even more effective than DEET in keeping mosquitoes away from us.
When it comes to addressing infectious disease, we have a short attention span. Forces are mobilized when we’ve crossed a tipping point, and demobilized when the immediate threat has passed. In the case of Zika, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency based on a strong association between Zika infection and microcephaly in newborns and a spike in Guillain-Barré syndrome.
There are approximately 3,500 mosquito species in the world. Of those, only a few hundred are known to bite humans. And just two have adapted to breed almost exclusively in urban environments where they are in close proximity to people.
The Zika virus epidemic is yet another disease transmitted by mosquitoes. Those tiny insects are responsible for spreading many of the world’s worst diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever. According to the World Health Organization, over 400,000 people worldwide died from malaria in 2015.
Globally, there are more than 3,000 mosquito species, with around 150 native to the U.S. To many listeners – a mosquito is a mosquito. But depending on the species that bites you, mosquitoes can be a nuisance or a public health threat.