Flower-loving Mosquitos

Should we genetically modify all mosquitos to suck on nectar instead of blood?
Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

(Inside Science) -- As the hot summer months ramp up, so do biting, disease-carrying mosquitos -- arguably the season's most annoying bug. But what if we could live in a world where mosquitoes choose to feed on flowers instead of blood?

If you’ve spent any time outside this summer, chances are you’ve been eaten alive at least once already. The bloodsuckers are out, and although you can’t effectively run and hide from them, maybe it’s comforting to know that not all mosquitoes are out for blood.

“Really all mosquitoes like nectar, males and females both. Males eat nothing but nectar. Females do both. They feed on nectar and they also, of course -- many of them take blood meals,” said David Denlinger, in the Department of Entomology at Ohio State University.

Denlinger has spent much of his career studying bugs, including mosquitoes. He’s been working to tease out a few genetic features of a particular species of mosquitoes that feed mostly on nectar from flowers and plants -- they don’t like to bite to feed on blood.

“Those that are biters are much more clued into olfactory signals, the sense of smell. If you’re going to feed, take a blood meal, you have to find a host and that means that you have to have certain genes on that are able to detect a host. Those that feed only on nectar don’t need that. They have genes turned on that are associated with visual acuity. So, they need to, you know, find a host plant and probably using more visual cues than olfactory cues to do that,” said Denlinger.

So, can we genetically modify all mosquitoes to eat only nectar?

“It would be really cool if we were able to shut off that blood feeding response. And that is in the back of mind as something that we would love to be able to do ultimately at some point. This is something that maybe could be exploited in the future for making nonbiting mosquitos,” Denlinger.

But don’t put away the insect repellent just yet. Scientists still have many questions about the insect’s genetics before we can live in a world of biteless mosquitoes.

“The one caveat is a concern that if the mosquitos are genetically modified, get out and get widely distributed, will this have some impact on other organisms in the environment or the ecosystem? Frankly, it’s a risk that I’m rather willing to take. I think we would be just fine without certain species of mosquitos on our earth,” concluded Denlinger.

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Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.