Researchers believe they are on the cusp of a major breakthrough in combatting what one of them calls “the most dangerous animals in the world,” infecting millions of people and causing countless deaths in tropical countries.

To Canadians, they can be everything from a minor irritant to a major pest that can, in rare instances, cause death.

We’re talking mosquitoes, transmitters of viruses that cause diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever in tropical countries.

Dengue fever infects 50 million to 100 million people a year and causes 40,000 deaths. There are no vaccines or drugs to stop the disease. Insecticides are used to control dengue outbreaks, but are “grossly ineffective,” said microbiologist Anthony James.

James, of the University of California, Irvine, and colleague Luke Alphey of the University of Oxford in England have come up with a new way to combat mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever using genetic engineering instead of insecticides.

Their research, described in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involves creating genetically altered male mosquitoes to breed female mosquitoes – the ones that bite – without wings.

The idea is simple. They won’t bite if they can’t take flight.

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