Key Achievements of 2016

As we start a new year I want to take a moment to look back at some of the key milestones of the one just past. It started with a bang – another tour-de-force publication from the lab of Andrea Crisanti, this one identifying three genes in malaria-transmitting mosquitoes that match the criteria we were looking for, and demonstrating very high homing rates at all three. This was proof of principle that we can make strong gene drive constructs targeting specific genes in the mosquito. Quite rightly, the paper received a great deal of interest from both the scientific community and the media, including the BBC, International Business Times, Nature, STAT, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, India Today and The Japan Times.

Other important progress that came out during the year, that we either led or participated in, included

  • improved understanding of how natural homing endonucleases recognise their target sequences;
  • demonstration that CRISPR-based nucleases can be used to distort the sex ratio: “A synthetic sex ratio distortion system for the control of the human malaria mosquito
  • molecular characterisation of the malaria mosquito Y chromosome: “Site-specific genetic engineering of the Anopheles gambiae Y chromosome
  • detailed analysis of the fate of a gene causing male sterility in large cage populations;
  • computer modelling of gene drive approaches in seasonal and spatially extensive environments;
  • demonstration that genetic data can be used to measure mosquito suppression; and
  • ideas about how to predict the impact of controlling one vector species when there are other ones present.

Our scientific progress stimulated increased interest from key stakeholders, and during the year we organised or participated in a range of outreach activities, including:

  • a roundtable with malaria experts in Geneva;
  • a workshop on Ethics in Gene Drive Research at North Carolina State University (Raleigh);
  • a roundtable on gene drive hosted by the African Academy of Sciences (Nairobi);
  • symposia at the Pan African Mosquito Control Association (Lagos) and the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (Atlanta);
  • a meeting of the Vector Control Advisory Group of the WHO (Geneva)
  • a meeting on gene drive organised by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD; Accra)
  • a side event at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (Cancun)

This year also saw the United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine publish a study examining a range of questions about gene drive research. The report clearly outlines both the tremendous potential of the tools that could be created and the challenges we face in realising this potential. At the other extreme, it was nice to see Target Malaria shortlisted for the WIRED UK innovation awards — these are meant to recognise some of the best ideas and innovations that could change our world, and that’s exactly what our work is about. And in August we started an exciting new funding extension from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation worth $35 million over three and a half years to continue the important work of Target Malaria. There’s a lot still to be done, and I am looking forward to seeing what our amazing team can achieve in 2017.