Monday, January 19, 2009

Mosquitoes and SF

In 1998 I published a biothriller called STINGER, which featured a genetically altered form of malaria used as a terrorist weapon. The mosquitoes that carry malaria (Anopheles quadrimaculatus, in the eastern United States) are still here, and it would not be hard to re-introduce the disease into the US. Bill Gates, however, has a reverse twist on engineering mosquitoes. In the closing months of 2008, the Gates Foundation awarded $100,000 to a researcher at Jichi Medical University in Japan to develop genetically altered mosquitoes that, when they bite people, will deliver not malaria parasites but rather vaccines against disease.

This unorthodox project is part of the Gates Foundation's "Grand Challenges Explorations" program, which gives grants to ideas that "fall outside current scientific paradigms." Nor is it the first time that the Foundation has funded genetic engineering of mosquitoes. In 2006, a grant went to North Carolina State University to work on a genemod mosquito that would be incapable of carrying malaria. The idea is that such mutants would mate with normal mosquitoes, and the genemod would eventually spread through the mosquito population (faster if the trait were dominant, the genemod insects especially sexually attractive, or both).

Even if either of these versions of the flying pest could be created, public acceptance would be a terrific barrier to allowing them to be released outside the lab. Although there has not been much protest against genetically altered foods in the United States (at least, not compared to Europe), that doesn't mean there wouldn't be hue and cry about mosquitoes. Or maybe not.

What interests me, however, is another issue. The Gates Foundation is hoping for a positive outcome from genetic modification of mosquitoes. I -- like so many other SF writers -- focused on a negative outcome. Yes, "going negative" makes a more compelling story, but at the same time, it helps shape, if only in some small way, bad publicity for genetic engineering. This troubles me, because I think biotech may be one way to keep our planet from going under. STINGER, however, hardly reflects that belief.

A small side note: in Germany, the novel was published as MOSKITO. Much more starkly descriptive. Why didn't I think of that?


John Nicholas said...

I've never come across that book. I guess not filed with your science fiction?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I suspect because mosquitoes are not the pain-in-the-ass in Germany as they are here.

Nancy Kress said...

John-- Sometimes it is with SF and sometimes with thrillers, which makes it harder to find in libraries. It's currently out of print (alas) but there are copies on and eBay.

dolphintornsea said...

Oh, never mind the mosquitoes.

Happy birthday, Nancy!