Malaria-proof mosquitoes being hatched

(CBS News) IRVINE, Calif. -- It's the time of year when the great outdoors is calling.

But this summer has brought much of the nation record heat and humidity -- and warnings of the possibility of a record number of mosquitoes.

They're not just annoying -- they can be deadly.

Yet, in a lab at the University of California, Irvine, scientists are breeding millions of mosquitoes.

It's the life's work of Dr. Anthony James, a molecular biologist who hopes to alter their behavior and change their role in world health.

In the lab, the pesky mosquito is almost revered.

Where most people would see a blood-sucking nuisance, James sees enormous potential.

"Believe it or not, they're actually quite beautiful!" James says.

Admittedly, it's a love/hate relationship.

Their annoying buzz "is the actual wing-beat frequency of the mosquitoes," James points out. "They're beating their wings at a certain frequency, and it creates a sound and that's that annoying little hum that you hear."

Males don't bite. Only the females do. They're drawn to human scents, and need human blood to reproduce.

"We'd love to be able to (have mosquitoes that don't bite) but, in an engineering sense, it doesn't work that well," James explains. "So the next thing to do is to make a mosquito that does bite, but is not going to infect you."

For more than 25 years, James has worked to build a better bug.

His team of scientists has figured out a way to change a mosquito's DNA.

Using a tiny needle, they inject its eggs with malaria-resistant genes. The eggs are just one-tenth the size of a sesame seed, but as they hatch, this new generation is immune to the disease. Once released, they'll breed offspring that are also malaria-proof.

"It's potentially a tremendously significant development," observes David Bowen, CEO of Malaria No More, an organization dedicated to wiping out malaria in Africa by 2015.

Each year in the U.S., about 100 people die from diseases carried by mosquitoes. In other parts of the world, it's much worse: Parasites for dengue fever and malaria kill one- to three million people.

"A child dies every minute of malaria, every single minute of every single hour of every single day," Bowen emphasizes.

James' breakthrough could help eradicate malaria. But there's been another reaction to his science: fear of tampering with Mother Nature.

"When people hear the phrase genetically modified mosquito -- we've all seen the same science fiction movies -- there are images that get conjured up in people's minds about what that is," Bowen notes.

In South Florida, the threats of West Nile virus and dengue fever are being combated with an arsenal of chemicals sprayed from planes. The state has shown interest in releasing mosquitoes genetically engineered by a British company, but a petition in Key West against the manmade bugs has already drawn more than 100,000 signatures.

James says there could come a time when malaria is no more. "I'm an optimistic person," he says. " ... I like to say we got to the moon, that was a challenge..."

His mission is to launch his high-tech weapons as allies to conquer one of the world's oldest threats.

  • Bill Whitaker

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