GM fungus kills malaria mosquitoes

Grant Boone
June 2, 2019

A fungus genetically altered to produce spider venom quickly kills virtually all malaria-spreading mosquitoes, a study has found.

Within 45 days, trials conducted in Burkina Faso, showed that mosquito populations collapsed by 99% due to the fungus.

One of the main reasons for this lack of progress is that malaria-carrying mosquitoes are becoming increasingly resistant to the insecticides that are sprayed on bed nets and around dwellings in an effort to control their populations. The toxin, an insecticide called Hybrid, comes from the venom of the Australian Blue Mountains funnel-web spider.

The experiment was conducted by scientists from the University of Maryland (UMD) in the USA and the IRSS research institute in Burkina Faso and its findings published this week in the journal Science.

The fungus used by the researchers, Metarhizium pingshaense, is a naturally-occurring pathogen that infects insects in the wild and has been used to control pests for centuries. The next step in the study involved enhancing the fungus. The intention was to enable the fungus to start producing the toxin once it's inside a mosquito.

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"A spider uses its fangs to pierce the skin of insects and inject toxins, we replaced the fangs of spider with Metarhizium", study researcher Raymond St. Leger, from the University of Maryland, said. In a controlled test, the population of these risky insects collapsed once the GMO fungus was introduced into the population. After this introduction, only 13 mosquitoes survived after a period of 45 days.

The fungus was tested in a structure called the MosquitoSphere - which included plants, huts, small pools of water and a food source for mosquitoes.

After mixing the fungal spores with sesame oil, the researchers wiped them on to black cotton sheets.

The compartments were enclosed in a greenhouse frame covered in mosquito netting so the mosquitoes inside would be exposed to normal climate conditions to make a near-field accurate simulation.

As Professor Michael Bonsall, a University of Oxford scientist who was not involved with the study, commented: "Proportionate bio-safety regulations are needed to ensure that the viability of this and other approaches for vector [mosquito] control using genetic methods are not lost through overly zealous restrictions". There were 1,500 mosquitoes used for the experiments.

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