GM fungus kills malaria mosquitoes

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Reports of a breakthrough genetically modified (GM) fungus that kills 99 per cent of malaria mosquitoes are coming in thick and fast.

Researchers at the University of Maryland in the US and IRSS research institute in Burkina Faso, west Africa, identified a fungus that naturally infects the Anopheles mosquitoes that spread malaria. The fungus, known as Metarhizium pingshaense, cannot stop malaria on its own, but thanks to some clever genetic engineering, researchers were able to enhance it with a toxin found in the venom of a species of funnel-web spider in Australia – and it was the combination of these that were eventually found to kill the mosquito.

"A spider uses its fangs to pierce the skin of insects and inject toxins, we replaced the fangs of spider with Metarhizium," Professor Raymond St Leger of the University of Maryland explained.

Knowing that malaria kills more than 400,000 people a year and that Africa is one of the continents worst affected by this terrible disease, trials of the fungus were carried out in a simulated village in Burkina Faso, one that replicated the normal conditions that mosquitoes would thrive in, complete with plants, huts and water and food sources for the mosquitoes. The difference, however, was that the replica village was surrounded by a double-layer mosquito net to prevent any unwanted specimens from breaking free.

The results of the trial were astronomical – when left alone, mosquito numbers soared, but when infected with the spider-toxin fungus, around 99 per cent of the mosquitoes perished. Out of the 1,500 mosquitoes, only 13 were left after 45 days. “The transgenic fungus quickly collapsed the mosquito population in just two generations," said Dr Brian Lovett, from the University of Maryland.

Another important finding that the experiment highlighted was that the fungus did not affect any other insects such as bees, which is doubly important in implementing insecticide methods such as this. Lovett added that the technology is not aiming to drive the extinction of mosquitoes: “What we're aiming to do is break malaria transmission in an area."

The importance of innovation and thinking outside of the well-worn box for finding a solution to malaria epidemics cannot be overlooked. With the World Health Organization stressing that cases in the 10 worst affected countries in Africa are increasing, it’s paramount that pioneering research in this area continues. ITIJ commends the diligent work of the teams at University of Maryland and IRSS research institute in Burkina Faso.