Scientists are genetically engineering mosquitoes in an attempt to wipe out malaria, the disease responsible for more deaths worldwide than any other.

Anthony James, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of California, whose lab is working on mosquitoes that cannot host the malaria parasite, said some strains are now ready to be tested outside the lab.

Speaking at the Biotech Bugs conference in Washington DC, sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Prof James said his team has been working on “introgressing” genes for malaria resistance into existing populations of mosquitoes. The theory of the work is that such genes introduced at high enough frequencies will decrease transmission and result in less disease and death from malaria, possibly even bringing an end to it.

The research is timely as the emerging insecticide resistance of mosquitoes is crippling some of the once-effective approaches used to control them, such as spraying.

Malaria is caused by any one of four species of one-celled parasites called plasmodium. The parasite is spread to people by the female anopheles mosquito. The World Health Organisation estimates that about 1.3 million people die from the disease annually.

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