UC Riverside-led Team Wins $14.9 Million to Battle Disease-carrying Mosquitoes

DARPA award is largest ever for a UCR researcher

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — A University of California, Riverside scientist is leading a team of researchers that will receive up to $14.9 million dollars from The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to be part of the “Safe Genes” program to study innovative genetic techniques to control disease-causing mosquitoes.

With the contract, the largest ever received by a UC Riverside researcher, Omar Akbari, an assistant professor of entomology, and his team will focus on a technique known as “gene drive.” It has the potential to spread desirable genes in wild populations and suppress harmful organisms.

“Our primary goal is to safely test and innovate these technologies strictly in the laboratory,” said Akbari, who led the collaboration of six UC campuses. “We hope our efforts will broaden our fundamental understanding of the potency of gene drives to help better understand how they may behave in the natural environment if ever released.”

headshot of Omar Akbari

Omar Akbari

The researchers want to understand the potential risks and benefits of using gene drives to control mosquitoes that carry diseases including Zika, chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever. Gene drives have ever greater promise because the recently discovered CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique has the potential to create, streamline, and improve the development of gene drives.

Insects that carry disease represent one of the greatest worldwide threats to human health, with billions of people at risk of infection. Last year, more than 700 million people were infected with malaria or dengue fever, resulting in 440,000 deaths. And the prevalence of the Zika virus is rising.

Protecting the public from these diseases is difficult. Vaccines to prevent the diseases either don’t exist, or are not effective. And current mosquito control methods are inadequate, as mosquitoes have become resistant. That creates a critical need for a transformative, species-specific, safe, and effective method to control mosquitoes.

Recent advances in genetics and molecular biology allow researchers to use the gene drive technique to introduce genetic elements into a population to enforce the inheritance of selected genes. These elements increase transmission by more than 50 percent, resulting in rapid spread throughout a mosquito population.

The UC Riverside-led effort seeks to answer many of the unknowns that surround this novel approach, and will offer data for consideration by scientists, policy makers, and the public. Although gene drives have been discussed and studied for decades, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique, which relies on a Cas9 protein targeted to a specific genomic location by guide RNAs, has revolutionized the development of gene drive systems because it offers an increasingly inexpensive, efficient, and more reliable way to make precise, targeted changes to the genome.

With the DARPA contract, the researchers aim to develop and test several innovative, safe, gene drive approaches, integrate novel effectors to the drives, which are elements that can increase their utility and safety, and to use complex mathematical modeling to identify the most effective approaches. The team will also integrate ecological data by sampling and sequencing wild mosquitoes captured from locations spanning California. This data will help inform the designs of the drives and help predict how gene drives might behave in a natural setting. There will also be a public engagement component, an essential ingredient to establish public trust if field studies are to be considered.

The initial research will focus on the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads diseases including Zika virus, dengue fever and yellow fever virus. But the technologies developed are meant to be later applied to other mosquito species, responsible for spreading diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus.

In addition to Akbari, the other team members are: Craig Montell (UC Santa Barbara); Anthony James (UC Irvine); Ethan Bier, Valentino Gantz, Sergey Kryazhimskiy, Justin Meyer and Cinnamon Bloss (UC San Diego); Gregory Lanzaro (UC Davis) and John Marshall (UC Berkeley).

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