Zoonotic diseases, diseases that jump from animal to human such as the novel coronavirus, change our lives. They can restrict our movement, what we eat, and where we can live.
Of the many creatures and critters who pose a threat to humans, mosquitoes are often said to be the most dangerous. It makes sense—they have spread Zika virus, West Nile, Dengue fever, yellow fever, and one of the most devastating diseases in the world: malaria.
Despite our intelligence, animals and mosquitoes specifically, have called the shots. A recent episode of NPR’s Throughline podcast dives further into the ways mosquitos have changed the course of history.
In the first example, they discuss how the successful warrior Hannibal of Carthage was unable to capture the Roman empire because of the Pontine marshes filled with malaria-ridden mosquitoes. The world could have been a completely different place if the Punic wars ended with Carthage’s success.
Later, Adolf Hitler would use the same marsh full of mosquitoes as a tool of biological warfare against the allied powers during World War II.
Not only have mosquitoes changed history, they’ve altered some of our DNA. As was highlighted in a recent episode of the I am BIO podcast, sickle cell trait and the disease is an evolutionary response to mosquitoes.
As the earth’s temperature increases, animals that thrive in humidity, such as mosquitoes, are growing. Other animals are losing their natural habitat to our need for land, causing them and our food animals to come into closer contact increasing the transmission of diseases.
But, thanks to biotechnology, we have the ability to mitigate some of these animal-related risks.
Oxitec, a British biotechnology company, has genetically engineered a “friendly,” non-biting mosquito. At scale, these mosquitoes can effectively reduce mosquito populations and reduce the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, and Zika virus.
Other researchers are exploring the use of a natural bacteria called Wolbachia that will essentially create self-limiting mosquitoes, resulting in mosquito offspring that don’t hatch.
Good news aside, the fact is that mosquitoes are far from the only source of disease. Humans have contracted diseases from monkeys, raccoons, bats, and birds. Each time, our understanding of our bodies and our world have had to adjust.
With a warming climate and disappearing natural habitats, the lines of separation between us and animals is becoming blurred.
The contraction and transmission of zoonotic diseases are sometimes difficult to predict, but biotech researchers and innovators have been able to react and adapt whether through human-targeted vaccines and treatments, through animal disease mitigation, or through pest control technologies that are more environmentally friendly.
It remains clear though, as we have seen during the coronavirus outbreak, that prevention is the best strategy. There are a couple of ways to help prevent zoonotic diseases even without knowing what the future holds.
Innovation in animal biotechnology may be able to prevent, prepare for, and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as coronavirus, Ebola, Zika, avian influenza (HPAI), and MERS, by creating more disease-resistant animals and supporting the development of disease treatments for humans.
As noted above, climate change is contributing to insect population increases. But the use of renewable biofuels can help mitigate the stress on the ozone layer, lower humidity, and keep certain types of pest populations low or stable.
To help preserve animal habitats, biotech researchers are constantly developing ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle so that we’re cutting down on trash that invades the oceans and we don’t raze animal habitats for more land. This means finding ways to create compostable or recyclable bioplastics, and new synthetic biology research so that we’re able to do things such as reuse the same land to grow crops generation after generation.
Finally, a regulatory structure that fosters research and development so that One Health amongst human, animal, and environmental health strategies will help increase innovation that can foresee and prevent zoonotic disease tragedies such as Covid-19.
Animals have indeed changed us, our history, and our world in worrisome ways, but with biotech, we can take better control of our future.