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Scientists Genetically Modify a Fungus to Stop Malaria Spreading

Jun 25 2019 Read 818 Times

In a breakthrough study from the University of Maryland, a team of researchers have discovered that a genetically modified fungus can be used to rapidly kill up to 99% of malaria mosquitoes. The study involved trials in the West African country of Burkina Faso and found that after introducing a fungus that was genetically modified to produce spider toxins, mosquito populations were almost completely wiped out within 45 days.

Spread via bites from female mosquitos, the malaria disease kills more than 400,000 people every year, with most deaths in sub-Saharan Africa and India. Around the world, there are around 219 million reported cases of malaria. While the results of the study were dramatic, the researchers assert the goal is not to wipe out mosquitos altogether, but to control populations and help stop the spread of malaria.

Harnessing the toxicity of funnel-web spiders

Working together with the IRSS research institute in Burkina Faso, the University of Maryland team explored the properties of Metarhizium pingshaense, a fungus that naturally infects malaria carrying Anopheles mosquitoes. Next, they enhanced the fungus to carry a venomous toxin found in Australian funnel-web spiders. The genomic instructions for producing the toxin were manually added to the genetic code of the fungus so it would continue to produce the toxin after infecting mosquitos.

"They're very malleable, you can genetically engineer them very easily," explains Raymond St Leger, a Professor at the University of Maryland. "A spider uses its fangs to pierce the skin of insects and inject toxins, we replaced the fangs of spider with Metarhizium," he adds.

Project aims to "break malaria transmission" in target areas

The genetically modified fungus was then trialed in a 6,500-square-foot fake village surrounded by a heavy duty mosquito net and designed to simulate real-world conditions with plants, water sources and food for the insects to breed. The results of the project were published in the journal Science and explain how mosquito numbers soared when the environment was left untouched, yet drastically declines following the introduction of the spider-toxin fungus.

"The transgenic fungus quickly collapsed the mosquito population in just two generations," said Dr Brian Lovett, also from the University of Maryland. "Our technology is not aiming to drive the extinction of mosquitoes, what we're aiming to do is break malaria transmission in an area."

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