Anxiety over the Zika virus has grown in fits and starts since it broke out dramatically in Brazil in 2015, with widespread reports of infected pregnant women bearing infants suffering microcephaly, a condition in which the brain fails to grow fully. The U.S. had more than 5,000 cases of Zika infection, and California reported more than 500 by April 2017. Santa Barbara County had eight positive cases of Zika, including two pregnant residents; according to County Public Health, all were travel related.
UCSB researchers have joined the effort to suppress Zika-virus-bearing mosquitoes under a contract with the Defense Department’s R&D powerhouse DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Using a technique pioneered by two members of the project team — Ethan Bier of UC San Diego and Anthony James of UC Irvine — they will work on aspects of spreading desirable genes in the wild and suppressing harmful organisms. The recently perfected CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique has made genome changes more efficient and well targeted. No mosquitoes will be released as part of this work.
The $14.9 million contract with DARPA is spread across six UC labs, including Professor Craig Montell’s at Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Montell’s portion of the four-year research project will concentrate on “callback measures” that ensure the genetically altered mosquitoes will not “persist in the environment.” His lab will collect the stinging bugs throughout California and use the ecological data they gather to predict how altered mosquitoes might behave in the wild. The focus of this research is Aedes aegypti, which spreads Zika, but the scientists hope the results will also apply to mosquitoes that spread West Nile and malaria.