When Delphine Thizy talks to people about eliminating malaria by targeting mosquitos, the one question she says everyone asks—“whether you’re talking to someone in a village in Africa who has never studied biology or an ecologist or a UN ambassador”—is this: What are the consequences?
It’s a good question. To humans, mosquitoes are at best annoying and at worst deadly, but to dozens of other species in the wild, they are competitor, pollinator, or prey. If past malaria-eradication campaigns have taught us anything (see: 1950s, DDT), it is that reshaping the environment can have unintended consequences.
Thizy talks about mosquitos because she is the stakeholder engagement manager for Target Malaria, a Bill Gates–backed nonprofit research consortium developing genetically modified mosquitoes to suppress populations of the bugs that spread the disease. The technology is ambitious and new, and thus controversial. Even though its genetically modified mosquitoes likely won’t be ready until 2029, Target Malaria has gotten enough questions about ecological consequences that it realized answering with the current scientific consensus—It will probably be fine!—was not good enough.
In October, a team of Target Malaria scientists from the University of Ghana and the University of Oxford will embark on a four-year study of the ecology of the malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae in Ghana. Ultimately, they hope to understand how fish, bats, flowers, and insects would respond if those mosquito populations were reduced—or even entirely eliminated. Previous research has danced around this question, Thizy says, but “nobody has really studied it on purpose.”