Traditionally, to understand how a gene functions, a scientist would breed an organism that lacks that gene - "knocking it out" - then ask how the organism has changed. Are its senses affected? Its behavior? Can it even survive? Thanks to the recent advance of gene editing technology, this gold standard genetic experiment has become much more accessible in a wide variety of organisms. Now, researchers at Rockefeller University have harnessed an increasingly popular molecular technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 editing (originally identified in bacteria as a natural defense mechanism that bacteria possess to recognize and disable viruses and plasmids by cutting up their genetic material) in an important and understudied species: the mosquito, Aedes aegypti (photo), which infects hundreds of millions of people annually with the viral diseases chikungunya, yellow fever, and dengue. Rockefeller researchers led by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Benjamin J. Matthews adapted the CRISPR-Cas9 system to Ae. aegypti and were able to efficiently generate targeted mutations and insertions in a number of genes. The immediate goal of this project, says Dr. Matthews, is to learn more about how different genes help the species operate so efficiently as a disease vector, and create new ways to control it. "To understand how the female mosquito actually transmits disease," says Dr. Matthews, "you have to learn how she finds humans to bite, and how she chooses a source of water to lay her eggs. Once you have that information, techniques for intervention will come."
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