We now have the ability to precisely alter and replace the DNA of living cells - the targeted engineering of genomes. Today the ever growing tool-set enables genetic modifications ranging from the alteration of single base pairs to the generation of entirely synthetic chromosomes. This power is beginning to transform genetics and genomics and will ultimately transform agriculture and medicine and society. Our research seeks to exploit some these new tools to tackle real problems. One application is the control of insect pests or insect vectors of disease. The greatest challenges science has ever faced is that by 2050 the world’s population will increase to over 9 billion people. Insect pests cause huge losses to agricultural production and a changing climate, the spread of invasive species following in its wake as well as the rise of insecticide resistance is predicted to increase the burden of insects on agricultural production and on human health with half the world's population now at risk from vector-borne disease. According to the WHO, vector-borne diseases are responsible for close to 1 million deaths each year and insecticide-resistant mosquitoes now inhabit more than 60 countries. New tools for the control of insect pests and disease vectors can save and improve the lives of millions in disease endemic countries. How can genome engineering help to control an insect vector population? We work on various avenues for genetic control, a form of area-wide biological control that has the potential to replace more indiscriminate methods of pest control and thus reduce ecosystem degradation.
We have pioneered a technology called "gene drive" that allows us to genetically engineer pest or vector populations. This can be used to render vector populations incapable of transmitting disease or to reduce such populations in size. We are currently developing 2nd generation gene drive constructs for population replacement.
sex ratio distorters
We are developing methods to bias the reproductive sex ratio of insect populations towards males. Synthetic sex-ratio distortion, which we first demonstrated in the malaria mosquito, relies on an endonuclease that cuts a repetitive DNA sequence found solely on the X-chromosome. Genetic linkage of the sex distorter with the Y-chromosome could generate a self-perpetuating intervention that could rapidly invade and eliminate a natural vector populations.
synthetic transcription factors
Recent advances in genome engineering technology have allowed for an unprecedented ability to investigate transcription control. The same synthetic biology tools have also allowed for a simplified approach for the creation of artificial transcription factors, which act to alter endogenous gene expression. When such approaches are used together they provide a powerful means by which to examine fundamental-biological aspects of transcriptional control.