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Do mosquitoes serve a purpose in the ecosystem? As one of the most hated creatures on the planet, some people have wondered why we don't just kill them ALL? Let's unpack this issue, with SciShow!

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History of War against Mosquitoes/DDT

Ecological Impacts

Zika Mosquito

RNA Molecular Pesticide (killing)

Transgenic Male Mosquitoes -- self-limiting gene, kills offspring (killing)

Transgenic Mosquitoes -- gene drive, Anopheles (resistance to parasite)

Wolbachia -- bacteria infection, Aedes (resistance to virus)

Wolbachia Parasite Superinfection -- preventing potential viral resistance

Mosquitoes suck, and not just literally - their bites are also itchy and annoying and certain species transmit parasites and viruses like the ones that cause Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Zika, infecting and killing hundreds of thousands of people each year. And when we told you about the Zika virus a couple weeks ago, a lot of you had the same question - why don't we just kill them all? All of them! Kill all the mosquitoes! Humans are historically really good at making things go extinct, so it shouldn't be too hard to get rid of these bloodsuckers, right? Yeah not exactly. 

First of all, there are over 3,000 mosquitoes species worldwide and only a couple hundred of them bite humans. Mosquitoes have been around for a lot longer than people - millions of years - and have survived lots of predators and environmental changes. So that would be a lot of tough insects to kill and a lot of bug deaths that wouldn't affect humans at all. And we've tried to eradicate mosquitoes before, mostly using chemicals that turned out to be awful for both the planet and us like DDT. But let's pretend that we were actually able to kill all the mosquitoes in some not environmentally-apocalyptic way, say if I wished on a star and the next day all mosquitoes just poofed out of existence. Would that be so bad for the Earth?

Some scientists actually say no, that if mosquitoes were suddenly ripped out of food webs, most ecosystems would heal pretty quickly and other organisms would fill in those gaps. But other scientists argued that certain mosquito species do play important ecological roles.

Take the mosquitoes that live in the arctic of Canada and Russia. They fly around in gigantic thick swarms and make up a huge part of the biomass there, and these mosquitoes pollinate arctic plants and are a major food source for migrating birds. Removing these guys, or other more southern species that are food for fish, birds, and other insects, could send a ripple through ecosystems, endangering many other plants and animals.

So we probably shouldn't kill all the mosquitoes, but we also don't have to. We know which species are vectors, or carriers, of the worst viruses and parasites that can infect humans, so lots of researchers are currently targeting these species and developing ways to kill them or kill the dangerous stuff inside them. 

Take the genus Aedes which transmits lots of awful diseases. One particularly nasty species is the Aedes aegypti, which is the primary vector for the Yellow Fever, Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika viruses. Aegypti is not just a pest, it's one of the most medically significant pests. So it's the focus of a lot of recent experiments in targeted mosquito eradication.  But some of the most promising research doesn't set out to kill mosquitoes outright, instead it genetically modifies them. In 2015, a British company called Oxitec created male A. aegypti mosquitoes with the self-limiting gene which basically means that the gene can stop their cells from functioning normally. When these genetically-modified mosquitoes are released and mate with females in the wild, this self-limiting gene gets passed on to their offspring. Those offspring usually can't develop properly and die before they become adults. No adult mosquitoes means no disease transmission. 

Likewise, a team of scientists in California inserted modified genes into a species of Anopheles mosquitoes which are vectors for the parasite that causes Malaria. The modified genes cause the mosquitoes to kill the Malaria-causing parasites that live inside them before they can transmit them to humans. And as a bonus, these parasite-destroying genes are designed to be passed on to 99.5% of the mosquitoes offspring. So eventually, this entire species could be unable to transmit Malaria, and scientists think that same technology could be applied to other mosquito species and other parasites and viruses like Zika. 

Lastly, some scientists are fighting fire with fire, or fighting viruses with bacteria, by intentionally infecting A. aegypti mosquitoes with a bacterium called Wolbachia. Wolbachia seems to stop most viruses from growing inside these mosquitoes so even if the mosquitoes bite somebody infected with say the Dengue virus, the virus wouldn't survive inside the mosquito long enough to be transmitted to a new person. Now because viruses mutate rapidly, scientists worry about accidentally creating deadly viruses that are resistant to Wolbachia, but a study released this week suggested a strategy to superinfect mosquitoes with more than one strain of the bacteria at a time. This way, the viruses can't develop resistance to the bacteria as easily, and we can keep infecting mosquitoes to keep them from infecting us. I mean, it's only fair. 

So basically it would be incredibly difficult, and possibly harmful, to kill all the mosquitoes, but we may soon be able to focus on certain species and take away their ability to infect us, making the world a lot safer, but not any less itchy. 

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