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Itch Fix: A Gene Turns Female Mosquitoes Into Males

With summer in full swing, we can expect there to be blazing heat, fun in the sun and most of all, pesky mosquito bites. For many of us, no tan is complete without having a few itchy bites here and there.

But what if we were able to reduce the number of these blood-sucking critters over time? In this edition of Science News, researchers may have found a way to relieve us from some of our biting friends.

A buzzing breakthrough

Why do mosquitoes leave such an itchy impression? Not all of them do, actually. Male mosquitoes feed on nectar and sugars from plants, while females are the ones that go straight for the bite. They do so because they require proteins from the blood of humans and other animals to develop their eggs, and in the process of extracting the blood, they leave a red, itchy reminder of their all-you-can-eat buffet.

Recently, scientists have found a gene called Nix that can turn these biting female mosquitoes into harmless males. Studies of this new gene were done on the species Aedes aegypticommonly known as the yellow fever mosquito. When Nix was inserted into the female embryos of Aedes aegypti, over two thirds of them developed male reproductive organs. Likewise, when Nix was removed from male mosquitoes, they developed female reproductive organs instead. Based on these observations, the Nix gene is an important male-determining factor that can be used as a gender-altering switch.

Currently, researchers are aiming to enhance the expression of the Nix gene so that a higher transformation success rate can be achieved. Their focus is to express Nix on a deeper cellular level so that mosquitoes can fully transform and pass on the gene to their offspring, thereby producing more males that won't use you as their next meal. 

How does this benefit our health? 

While most of us see mosquitoes as irritating pests, they have a much more devastating effect in other parts of the world as they transmit different kinds of diseases to humans. Aedes aegypti, in particular, are known to carry viruses primarily for dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever. In the case of yellow fever, up to 30,000 people die every year as infected mosquitoes spread the virus through their bites. 

Over time, several tactics have been used to try to control mosquito populations, such as releasing sterile males into high risk areas and removing water sources that act as potential breeding grounds. Scientists are hoping to use the Nix gene as another population-controlling measure. By changing female mosquitoes into males, there would be a reduction in mosquito-borne diseases and an improvement in the overall health of human populations. With this breakthrough, those pesky mosquito bites may no longer be such a bloody problem one day.   

Read more about the Nix gene and its potential role in reducing disease transmission. You can also visit our Search: Sara Stern Gallery to learn more about different insects and make an insect pooter while you're at it!