Determining the landscape of resistance to gene drives in the malaria mosquito

I. Morianou,  Imperial College London,  2022.

Gene drives are engineered selfish genetic elements with the potential to spread throughout entire insect populations for sustainable vector control. Recently, a gene drive was shown to eliminate caged populations of the malaria mosquito by targeting the highly conserved female-specific exon of the doublesex gene. This caused females, homozygous for the gene drive, to develop as sterile intersex individuals, leading to the observed population crash. However, target site resistant alleles that block gene drive activity, whilst encoding a functional copy of the target gene, may halt gene drive spread in the wild. These may be naturally occurring or generated by the gene drive itself. This thesis presents a pipeline for the discovery, genetic engineering, and testing of putative drive-resistant variants. First, to investigate the potential for natural resistance, existing population genomics data were interrogated for the presence of natural single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) at the highly conserved gene drive target region. To investigate the potential for drive-induced resistance, a high-throughput assay was designed to generate a high volume of mutations at the gene drive target site and screen them for their ability to restore dsx function. These methods yielded three putatively resistant SNPs: one natural polymorphism and two rare Cas9-induced mutations. These were engineered in the mosquito genome for testing, using a novel method termed CRISPR-mediated cassette exchange (CriMCE). It was confirmed that all three polymorphisms are functional and offer full, partial or no resistance to gene drive. Importantly, partial resistance to gene drive is being demonstrated for the first time. To mitigate observed resistance, gene drive systems targeting multiple sites simultaneously were developed. These showed improved drive dynamics and caused rapid elimination of caged mosquito populations within 7-8 generations. The experimental pipeline described here can be applied to pre-empt and mitigate resistance against any gene drive strategy, prior to field testing.

More related to this: