Monday, March 16, 2015

One Shot Mosquito

My job is to find some way to keep the mosquito from spreading malaria.
Mosquitoes evolved from biting flies.  Over time, they developed efficient ways to extract blood, and became dependent on it for the nutrients for breeding.  Their life cycle hints at a difficult and complex evolution.  They are the essential vector for malaria.  Malaria also has a complex life cycle hinting at a complex evolution in the company of the mosquito.
There has been a lot of futile research attempting to attack malaria directly.  The research is futile because of malarias’ different life cycle changes. The plasmodium parasite has too many life stages.  Singling out any particular one leaves the others and your medicine fails.   If you wish to attack malaria then you must attack the mosquito.
Malaria is one of the major detriments to human progress in the world.  The genetic human disorder of sickle cell disease evolved as a natural defense to the scourge of malaria.
In a time when so many species have perished in the face of human encroachment the mosquito persists, even thrives.  Perhaps someday we will eradicate this annoying and dangerous parasite.  There is no shortage of species of fly, the loss of one or two would not be missed.
You may be surprised at the altruism of drug companies and foundations willing to sponsor research that has so little potential for profit.  Well you should be. It is the treatment of disease, rather than eradication that is profitable.  But it has become vital for the development of the oil reserves in Africa, in particular Somalia, for us to be seen as benefactors rather than mere colonialists.  A victory in this area would more than justify the investment if it were properly presented and packaged.
-How can we help you my African brothers?  Oh I know, research!
The effort itself may well be rewarded.  Success could lead to development of previously inhospitable jungle.
 Then we could worry about the ecological impact.
What can we do?  The mosquito feeds, lays eggs, then repeats the process.  The repetition spreads disease.  How often does the mosquito repeat its egg laying?  Not that often, the laying of eggs requires tremendous effort.  It is the feeding that the mosquito repeats.  How to minimize the occurrence of feeding?  It must have bigger meals. Then it must compete with its sipping cousin for habitat, crowding it out.
What astounding arrogance to redesign such a perfect and well-adapted organism.  We do it all the time with many different species.  But it is amazing.  How to select for the quality I desire?  Provide the mosquitoes with a short meal and then keep the ones that breed.  Then repeat the process.  It’s not enough of course.  Simply stressing one quality does not assure the adaptability and survival of the variety we seek.  We can create hybrids of various species, all the while testing for improvement. 
Now that we have the genome mapped, we can create throwbacks, ancient varieties, evolutionary dead ends that may be more successful in meeting our criteria.  We tend to think of evolution as a process of optimization.  It is really more of a process of accommodation.  All sorts of possibilities have been tested, but not necessarily fairly or on their own merits.
With luck and of course persistence and some resourcefulness it was created: the perfect one-shot mosquito.  Malaria would be at an end.  Imagine the euphoria.  It is  rare that we have an opportunity in our professional lives to actually accomplish something.  People take pride, as best they can, in whatever accomplishments they may have.   This will change the world.  It is meant to change the world.  It will accomplish its purpose.  No stumbling.  No backing into it.  We knew what we had to do.  We mapped it out and then we did it.  It’s never that simple.  When a mosquito takes that large a meal, it leaves a welt.   That is to say, it leaves a large; quite often permanent scar.  The legal department was scathing.
-Okay, we’re not making any money on this, and everybody in the world will sue us.
I wish I could tell you that I was awash in idealism.  That I was thinking of some large eyed African child shivering from fever.  I don’t know anybody like that.  I was overcome with righteous indignation against the mammoth corporate interests who were making these cynical decisions about our future purely on the principle of protecting their own careers.  Actually, I like mammoth corporate interests who pay my salary and I want them to keep doing it.
It wasn’t pride.  Or at least I’m not admitting to that.  If I’m ever asked, I’ll say it was for Somali oil.  Maybe it was simply because I could.  I rolled up my sleeve, inserted my arm into their container and allowed the monsters to feed.  Then I removed my arm, allowing them to remain, rolled down my shirtsleeve and walked outside. After their release, I went back for the males.  I hope that the plasmodium  parasite doesn’t pass along mosquito generations.

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