The students in Anthony James’s basement insectary at the University of California, Irvine, knew they’d broken the laws of evolution when they looked at the mosquitoes’ eyes.
By rights, the bugs, born from fathers with fluorescent red eyes and mothers with normal ones, should have come out only about half red. Instead, as they counted them, first a few and then by the hundreds, they found 99 percent had glowing eyes.
Genetic engineering technologies can be used both to create transgenic mosquitoes carrying antipathogen effector genes targeting human malaria parasites and to generate gene-drive systems capable of introgressing the genes throughout wild vector populations. We developed a highly effective autonomous Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)-associated protein 9 (Cas9)-mediated gene-drive system in the Asian malaria vector Anopheles stephensi, adapted from the mutagenic chain reaction (MCR). This specific system results in progeny of males and females derived from transgenic males exhibiting a high frequency of germ-line gene conversion consistent with homology-directed repair (HDR). This system copies an ∼17-kb construct from its site of insertion to its homologous chromosome in a faithful, site-specific manner. Dual anti-Plasmodium falciparum effector genes, a marker gene, and the autonomous gene-drive components are introgressed into ∼99.5% of the progeny following outcrosses of transgenic lines to wild-type mosquitoes. The effector genes remain transcriptionally inducible upon blood feeding. In contrast to the efficient conversion in individuals expressing Cas9 only in the germ line, males and females derived from transgenic females, which are expected to have drive component molecules in the egg, produce progeny with a high frequency of mutations in the targeted genome sequence, resulting in near-Mendelian inheritance ratios of the transgene. Such mutant alleles result presumably from nonhomologous end-joining (NHEJ) events before the segregation of somatic and germ-line lineages early in development. These data support the design of this system to be active strictly within the germ line. Strains based on this technology could sustain control and elimination as part of the malaria eradication agenda.