RIVERSIDE, Calif. — In a warm and very humid room, behind a series of sealed doors, Omar Akbari keeps a zoo of mosquito mutants. He’s got mosquitoes with three eyes, mosquitoes with malformed mouthparts, mosquitoes with forked wings, mosquitoes with eerie white eyes, and mosquitoes that are bright yellow instead of black.
Akbari loves them unabashedly; he feeds them fish flakes, mouse blood, and sugar water and calls some of them “beautiful.” But they’re not pets: Akbari’s lab here at the University of California, Riverside, is at the leading edge of a revolutionary technology — gene drive — that could one day deploy mosquito mutants to rid the world of scourges like malaria, dengue, and Zika.
The technology is moving faster than anyone dreamed. Just three years ago, the idea of disabling or destroying entire populations of disease-causing mosquitoes using gene drives seemed a distant theoretical possibility. But advances in gene-editing have shoved the field into overdrive. And that vision is now very much in reach.