Dart that gnat: Battle the mosquito with genetic engineering
R.P. SUBRAMANIANTHE INDIAN EXPRESS Friday, December 28, 2001
Why are we unable to eradicate malaria? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that our ecosystem is like a giant, incredibly intricate, spider’s web. Everything in it is connected to everything else, however remotely, and any disturbance at one place is balanced by disturbances elsewhere. This balancing effect is nothing but a manifestation of Braun Principle elucidated by the great Le Chatelier, which states:
‘‘Whenever stress is placed on a system in equilibrium, the system will always react in a direction that will tend to counteract the applied stress.’’
Back in the old days, humans and malarial mosquitoes coexisted in a delicate, if painful, equilibrium. The mosquitoes bit humans and gave them malaria; the humans swatted the mosquitoes; and thus their respective populations were held in a fine natural balance. And then came DDT. To begin with, the insecticide worked like a charm, killing off the mosquitoes like...well, flies. But within a few generations the little biters became immune to the stuff. So other insecticides were invented, but in due course the insects became immune to these as well. And so it went till a stage has come about today when mosquitoes are not only impervious to the most lethal chemical cocktails we throw at them, but are actually lapping them up with the unholy glee of a thirsty citizenry celebrating the lifting of prohibition.
To add insult to injury, these very chemicals and the noxious wastes resulting from their manufacture are poisoning humans with utmost efficacy, and have fouled up our farmlands, rivers and atmosphere. As for malaria, it continues to plague us with undiminished vigour. We do not notice it so much only because there are a whole lot of other diseases which do not permit human beings to live long enough to be killed by the malarial parasite.
In a nutshell, what has happened is that with the advent of insecticides, humans proceeded to slaughter mosquitoes in vast and unsustainable numbers, thereby placing stress on the mosquito-human equilibrium. The ecosystem has therefore reacted so as to counter the stress, in accordance with the aforementioned Braun Principle. Mosquitoes have developed immunity to insecticides and increased the virulence and variety of the viruses they carry so as to knock off humans at a proportionately higher rate, thereby restoring the balance.
Is there no escape from the clutches of this dreadful Principle? Actually, genetic engineering could supply a solution, Because the mosquito-human balance cannot be eliminated merely by eliminating mosquitoes, the answer lies in somehow providing the mosquitoes with an alternative supply of nutrition (namely, human blood) so that they no longer need to depend on us for it. On conditions of anonymity, a young biotechnologist put it succinctly: ‘‘We need to create a different bunch of suckers for the little suckers to feed on!’’According to him, advanced cloning techniques could provide a steady and uninterrupted supply of mosquito-attracting human clones. These creatures, tentatively named Anophilians, could be settled under carefully monitored conditions in mosquito-infested areas of the planet, and their numbers fine-tuned so as to maintain the existing mosquito-human ratio, while keeping the real human being quite untouched by the insects.
However, some scientists warn that with the establishment of this new mosquito, humankind itself could become redundant in a vital sphere of the ecosystem and thereupon proceed to undergo rapid and irreversible degeneration in physique and intellect, ending with the extinction of our species. Other scientists argue that this process of decay has begun anyway with the advent of MTV, virtual pets and SMS. And so the debate rages on. In the meanwhile, though, it is advisable that we keep malarial mosquitoes at bay by perfecting our swatting techniques.