Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Is it going to be myxomatosis all over again?

Just finished reading a post on Wired. The title of the piece is "Mosquito-Attacking Fungus Engineered to Block Malaria". Apparently scientists are devising a new way to battle malaria by using genetically engineered fungi. The fungi attack the mosquitoes after reproduction while at the same time producing proteins that attack the parasite responsible for malaria. The 'after reproduction' bit is important as this prevents the mosquitoes from developing resistance against the fungi. It is proudly announced that this method will at the same time affect other mosquito species so other diseases like Dengue fever also run the chance of getting eradicated.

It all sounds too good to be true. No more malaria, which kills a million people a year and no more Dengue fever. All by genetically engineering some humble fungi. However, when something sounds too good to be true it usually is. And my fears are that in this case the axiom might be justified again.

Once upon a long lost time, when we humans were still very naive and not so very, very wise the way we are now, we thought to control bunny plagues by introducing myxomatosis. It turned out that the virus went way beyond control and moved swiftly on towards elimination of the rabbit. As a result the Iberian Lynx is all but extinct. If it were to become extinct, it would be the first big cat to go the dodo way in 10,000 years. Way to go, humanity.

We know little about the way our natural surroundings work. We think we do but we don't and as always: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. What will happen when all disease carrying mosquitoes are eradicated? We don't know. It may be that the humble mosquito fulfils an essential link in the chain that is called nature. It may be that in a hundred years time we have rid the world of malaria but created a problem greater than malaria ever was. A million deaths a year is not a trivial matter and I understand the necessity of finding a way to battle malaria but messing with fundamentals in nature of which we can scarcely predict the effects may be a very dangerous path to take.

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