Deep in Harvard’s public health school, behind three secure-access doors, hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes hatch and buzz in the school’s insectary. There, in the heat and high humidity, graduate student Andie Smidler runs experiments using a powerful, controversial tool called gene drive, which hijacks evolution to force an altered gene to be passed down to offspring. I caught up with her one recent afternoon in the insectary.
What do you study?
A mosquito called Anopheles gambiae, the main culprit for transmitting the deadliest form of malaria. Her goal is to wipe out malaria by using a gene drive to make the insects either infertile or malaria-resistant. Her lab isn’t the first to use gene drive for this purpose. But, along with her advisors, professors George Church and Flaminia Catteruccia, she’s trying to build a more powerful gene drive that could be the first to be released into the wild.
What’s your average day like?
“A quarter to a third of my day is literally keeping the mosquitoes alive,” she said. She tends to 15 families of genetically engineered mosquitoes. That includes picking pupae out of a dish of water and sorting them by gender, and feeding mosquitoes sugar water, pulverized fish food, and human blood. She also injects chunks of synthesized DNA into mosquito eggs, in the hopes that it will be incorporated into the mosquito’s genome.
What’s that Bug Warrior racket for?
In case the mosquitoes get loose in the insectary.
How far along is your research?
Smidler, who’s in her third year of study, hasn’t yet given mosquitoes malaria-infested blood. But she has genetically engineered lots of them. Some have estimated that if the gene drive tool were fully functional today, engineered mosquitoes could be released into the wild by 2030. But “I am on the cautious side,” Smidler said. “I am 27. I want to see gene drive released before I die.”