Updating the terminology to describe our genetically modified mosquitoes

Posted 17th May 2022 by Dr. Silke Fuchs

Gene drive research is a complex, emerging field and both the science and terminology are developing rapidly. This has been recognised in a living document by Alphey et al published at PNAS and GeneConvene, which seeks to standardise a core set of definitions of scientific terms used to describe gene drives. That document, which continues to be updated to reflect changes in the scientific literature, is a glossary of definitions produced via consensus with more than 60 researchers and stakeholders, including several Target Malaria researchers. The authors further invite those interested in gene drive to support this initiative by becoming a signatory.

As a Regulatory Science Officer for Target Malaria, I have been involved in making some key changes to the way we describe our genetic approaches to ensure that our project’s terminology aligns with this living document and the global scientific community.

This simplified chart shows both the intended geographical reach (“space”) and persistence (“time”) of the Genetically Modified Mosquito (GMM) strains that are currently developed by Target Malaria and others working on genetic vector control

Because researchers and some regulatory authorities and government agencies have begun to use the term “self-limiting gene drives” to describe temporally limited gene drive strains and due to the confusion between gene drive and non gene drive mosquito strains, we have decided to:

  • Specify the term “non gene drive” in English and “sans impulsion génétique” in French for any of our genetically modified strains that do not bias their inheritance, to make clear that they do not carry gene drive technology.
  • Use the term “self-limiting” to describe gene drives that can only spread or persist in a population for a short period of time. These will be known as “self-limiting gene drives” in English and “moustiques auto-limitatifs avec impulsion génétique” in French.
  • Use the term “self-sustaining” to refer to gene drives that can potentially sustain the high frequency of these sequences indefinitely in the target population. These will be known as “self-sustaining gene drives” in English and “moustiques autonomes (avec impulsion génétique)”in French.

The diagram below shows how we divide our work into a phased pathway, which begins with the development and release of non gene drive genetically modified mosquitoes. To date, we have conducted a single release of non gene drive genetically modified strains into the environment in Burkina Faso in 2019.

Target Malaria operates in multiple countries and languages, and engages with a range of stakeholders, both within and outside of the scientific community. It is vitally important that, collectively, we can all understand the terminology used to describe our work. We hope that these updated definitions increase clarity in how we articulate the complex science behind our work, and while these definitions are appropriate today, the field is not static. As such, we will continue to review our use of terminology and their translations to reflect current use by researchers and by regulatory bodies.