University of California at Irvine researchers and British colleagues from Oxitec Ltd. and the University of Oxford have created a new breed of mosquito in which the females are rendered flightless but the males can fly and successfully breed, reports Reuters. By handicapping females, the mosquitoes that bite, the scientists hope the males will continue to spread the new trait among wild populations, rendering whole mosquito generations incapable of spreading disease.

The concept is to distribute tens of thousands of eggs in disease-troubled regions that would hatch genetically modified males. The bugs would act as Trojan horses, breeding with wild females and diluting the gene pool until only wingless females are born. Scientists estimate the new breed could sustainably suppress the native mosquito population in six to nine months. If successful, the approach will offer a harmless and environmentally friendly alternative to chemical insecticides.

Currently the work is only specific to mosquitoes that carry the deadly dengue fever, but similar alterations could be made to species that spread malaria and West Nile fever. Since mosquitoes are estimated to transmit disease to more than 700 million people annually in Africa, South America, Central America, Mexico and much of Asia, this new approach could potentially save many lives.

"Another attractive feature of this method is that it's egalitarian: All people in the treated areas are equally protected, regardless of their wealth, power or education," said Oxitec's Luke Alphey, the study's senior author.

Dengue fever is a vector-borne disease that infects nearly 50 to 100 million people every year and has no vaccine or reliable treatment. Infected individuals experience severe flu-like symptoms which involve severe headache, muscle and joint pains, fever and rash. There may also be gastritis with some combination of associated abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Those most at risk of death experience a condition called dengue shock syndrome, which can lead to circulatory collapse.

The research received funding support from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health through the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, which was launched to support breakthrough advances for health challenges in the developing world.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Flightless mosquitoes may prevent disease
Scientists genetically engineer a new strain of female mosquitoes that cannot fly, hoping the handicap will curb dengue fever outbreaks.