GM fungus rapidly kills malaria mosquitoes – expert comment

A fungus - genetically enhanced to produce spider toxin - can rapidly kill huge numbers of the mosquitoes that spread malaria, according to a new study in Science.

The research involved a team from the University of Maryland and Burkina Faso conducting the first outside-of-a-laboratory trial of a transgenic method for combating malaria. The method is the latest step forward in UMD work to develop powerful new bioinsecticides and biopesticides through the creation of transgenically altered fungi.

Trials, which took place in Burkina Faso, showed mosquito populations collapsed by 99% within 45 days.

How exciting are the results from this trial, and what further work needs to be conducted?

Dr Colin Sutherland, co-director of the Malaria Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:

“The results of this semifield trial look very promising. Current mainstay methods for anopheles control target mosquitoes resting or biting indoors and rely on synthetic chemical insecticides. This new biocidal approach targets mosquitoes biting and resting outdoors as well as indoors, and may be less vulnerable to the problem of insecticide resistance.

“The next step will be to determine whether transgenic metarhizium is effective in an epidemiological trial, for example to test whether it has an impact on malaria.

“Many questions remain, including the potential impact of the released agent. This includes testing for any secondary dispersal by other mosquitoes and insects in contact with primary infected mosquitoes, and thus loss of control of the GM fungus.

 “Any off-target impacts on other mosquito species need to be investigated. Predatory insects in particular may be at risk if they eat fungus-infected mosquitoes that have not yet died.  Researchers need to rigorously test this specificity in the GM version of the fungus, and among insect species that occur where malaria control will happen.

 “The potential extinction of mosquito species, which would have unknown consequences, may be less of a risk as mosquito breeding also occurs away from human habitation, in places where the GM fungus will not be encountered.”

The Malaria Centre brings together around 300 researchers, postgraduate students and support staff from all three LSHTM faculties. Since its inception in 1998, the Malaria Centre has members working in around 40 countries at any one time. Areas of work range from basic laboratory science to social and economic studies, with a strong emphasis placed on translating research outcomes into practice. In addition to the scientific and policy work, members also provide teaching and training on malaria, both in London, and building capacity in endemic countries overseas.

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