U of M’s Gene-Editing Method to Fight Mosquito-Borne Diseases Gets NSF Funding

U of M’s Gene-Editing Method to Fight Mosquito-Borne Diseases Gets NSF Funding

The National Science Foundation sees commercialization potential in the University of Minnesota’s “synthetic incompatibility” process that can target certain mosquito populations.

A University of Minnesota idea for fighting mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika through editing the insects’ genomes shows broad commercialization potential, at least in the estimation of National Science Foundation funders.

Using a cutting-edge gene-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9, the method being developed by U of M molecular biologist Michael Smanski taps its capabilities to “hard-wire” male sterility into the genomes of a special breed of mosquito, which are then released to mate with the wild insects.

The process is called “synthetic incompatibility.” Its premise is ingenious because, if proven successful, it would cause targeted mosquito populations to die out without also introducing novel genetic material into the environment: Since the modified insects are all sterile, they are unable to pass along their genetic alterations.

In that way, synthetic incompatibility could hold the potential to overcome a major concern about using genetic engineering in the battle against Zika, dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases.

In fact, should Smanski and his U of M team be able to show that synthetic incompatibility can work outside of the lab, it could have far-ranging applications in controlling or eradicating not only disease-carrying insects, but also other invasive species such as Asian carp and crop pests, the researchers say.

The method may also be used in the future to prevent altered genes from escaping from genetically modified crops into other plant populations.

Meanwhile, the commercialization potential of synthetic incompatibility has received an early vote of confidence from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Smanski’s U of M lab this summer received a $50,000 grant through the NSF’s I-Corps program, which has a mission to “jumpstart a national innovation ecosystem.”

The I-Corps' purpose is to identify NSF-funded researchers for additional support in the form of mentoring and funding if they are deemed to be working on projects likely to attract “subsequent third-party funding” from outside investors looking to commercialize the innovation.

In seeking the funding, the U researchers noted that invasive organisms “pose serious challenges to human and environmental health and cause billions of dollars in economic damages to the U.S. every year,” but that current approaches relying on trapping, pesticides or predators have been unable to “stem the tide” and have resulted in unintended environmental impacts.

“There is an urgent need for control technologies that are broadly applicable, highly scalable, and cost-effective,” he wrote. “Recent advances in precision genome editing have enabled a next generation of engineered biocontrol agents that promise to be effective while minimizing unwanted impacts on the environment,” providing a means to prevent the reproduction of pest organisms without the introduction of toxins or pesticides.

The next step, Smanski said in a U of M blog post, is to demonstrate the approach can work in various types of organisms, adding,  “We’re working on moving into model fish, insects, nematodes and plants.”