Mind & Body

No One Knows What Would Happen If Mosquitoes Disappeared

Look, nobody likes mosquitoes. But it's not like we can just get rid of them, right? Even if it were possible, you can't just eliminate entire species without having a major effect on the ecosystem. It's just too bad that we have to accept malaria as a consequence of sharing the air with the little buggers. Well, not so fast. Some scientists aren't so sure that losing mosquitoes would be such a big deal — and that's coming from the people that study them closest.

Related: Why Mosquitoes Love Some People and Hate Others

Gone for Good?

There are lots of reasons for humans to want mosquitoes gone for good. Besides the buzz, the bites, and the itchiness, there's the much more serious problem of malaria, which infects about 200 million people and kills a million people every year. Not every mosquito carries malaria, of course, but one species in particular, Anopheles gambiae, is the disease's primary vector. So let's say A. gambiae disappeared tomorrow. Would we miss them?

The answer, it turns out, is a hesitant "maybe not." Emphasis on the hesitant — we really can't say for sure, and the unfortunate part is that once they're gone, there's no bringing them back. Still, many scientists think the gruesome solution should stay on the table, or at least a version of it. It probably wouldn't even be damaging to the environment, since the most popular plan requires no toxic chemicals. It involves releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild as a kind of time bomb. After a couple of generations, most of the population is rendered sterile. No fuss, no muss.

The Biting Truth

Delphine Thizy is the stakeholder engagement manager for Target Malaria, a Bill Gates–backed nonprofit working on that very solution. Whenever her work comes up in conversation, they always ask, "What could be the consequences?" To paraphrase Sarah Zhang from The Atlantic, "It will probably be fine!" is no longer an acceptable answer. So Target Malaria is working on answering the question once and for all.

A new four-year study starting this month will follow the lifecycles of several generations of A. gambiae, from larva to adulthood to death, and track exactly how those lifecycles intersect with those of local bats, fish, flowers, and other insects. If a loss of mosquitoes has an impact on bat populations (which are already threatened), that's a big deal, and same goes for the other links in the food chain. Another question the study hopes to answer: if A. gambiae disappears, will another malaria-carrying bug rise up to take its place? In that case, too, it wouldn't do us much good to try this plan. But according to Charles Godfray, a researcher working on the study is doubtful. "Anopheles gambiae, it really is our mosquito," he says. "It really has evolved with us ... It's quite hard to think about what could replace it that is worse." Sounds like it's worth a shot. At the very least, people might stop wasting money on citronella candles.

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This isn't the first attempt to cure malaria — and it's certainly not the most horrifying. Check out "The Malaria Project" by Karen Masterson to find out how 1940s scientists just couldn't stop wilding out (it's free when you try Audible for the first time). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 19, 2018

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