Frankenskeeter: Professor genetically modifies mosquitoes in quest to protect humans

Posted by JoAnn Adkins

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Matthew DeGennaro is determined to stop the world’s deadliest animal.

Accounting for as many as 725,000 deaths worldwide every year, mosquitoes transmit a variety of infectious diseases including malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, West Nile virus and Zika. While there are thousands of species of mosquitoes, only a small number are known to transmit diseases. As fate would have it, the carriers of disease happen to be the species that prefer the taste of humans. The Aedes aegypti mosquito is among those, a spreader of yellow fever, dengue and Zika. DeGennaro spends his days surrounded by them, trying to better understand why they hunt people and how he might stop them from biting us.

The FIU biologist is the first scientist in the world to create a mutant mosquito — a feat he achieved in 2010 as a researcher at Rockefeller University in New York. While it sounds like a Marvel movie in the making, DeGennaro has no intention of unleashing a new type of mosquito on the world. His mutants serve a greater scientific purpose — they help him better understand what attracts mosquitoes to humans.

DEET, the most common active ingredient in insect repellant, is not enough to safeguard humans.

“Although DEET is safe and effective, we need new tools to prevent mosquitoes from biting us,” DeGennaro said. “Understanding how DEET works will help us develop a new generation of repellents.”

Scientists still are not entirely clear as to how DEET works. They don’t know if DEET alone repels the pests or if it mixes with human odors to confuse mosquitoes so that they lose their attraction to people. Because you can’t exactly ask a mosquito, DeGennaro has gone the scientific route.