NC State looks at fighting Zika with mosquitoes

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Zika mosquito research going on at NC State.

How do you feel about genetically modified plants and animals? If you knew that GMO mosquitoes could eradicate the Zika virus would you be for it?

Researchers at NC State are leading the way trying to find ways to get rid of viruses and diseases in pests and they're doing it by genetically modifying them.

One strategy for dealing with mosquitoes is suppressing the population. There are programs around the world that actually use planes to drop sterile male mosquitoes over disease infected areas, so the females mate with sterile males and don't actually reproduce. Over time, mosquitoes are gone. Crews are actually trying to do that right now in Brazil but it's very expensive, and not really a long-term solution because there are so many mosquitoes. The population of mosquitoes is so high in tropical countries that it's hard to even create enough mosquitoes in a lab to suppress the population. During eradication, you would need hundreds of millions of bugs.

GMO in action. Scientists inject insect eggs, trying to genetically modify their makeup.
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NC State researchers take on Zika

NC State researchers like entomology professor Max Scott, are looking into doing something a little different.

"If you're dealing with an insect that's present in high levels, it's very hard to outnumber them. So the alternative strategy is ok, we won't try to eradicate it, but we will try to change them so they can no longer transmit disease," he explained.

The only way to do that is to genetically modify them. And scientists do that by creating what's called a "genetic drive system". It can spread an anti-viral gene through the population. First they need to develop the anti-viral gene. Then they need a drive system to move it through the insects DNA and get into its reproductive system to pass that same anti-viral gene on to its offspring.

In the lab, NC State researchers are learning how they can change an insect's genes. They need to know how early in an egg's life a scientist can inject an anti-viral gene for that egg to go on and survive.

Check out my photographer inside the mosquito zone. There are double seals on all the doors, no windows, and strict protocol to prevent research insects from escaping.

"There's been good progress on making anti-viral genes, but there's no working drive system yet," said Scott.

But there's been fantastic progress in the last year or two and people from all over the world are coming to NC State this week to hear about that progress.

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