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Mosquito Guts Implanted with GMO Malaria Assassins

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Anopheles stephensi mosquito Mosquitoes don’t cause malaria—the disease comes courtesy of the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. Yet mosquitoes do a fine job of spreading Plasmodium to about half a billion people every year.

The parasite depends on mosquitoes for more than just transport, however. Plasmodium goes through much of its complex life cycle inside the mosquito, passing through the gut as it goes.

Here lies the bottleneck: While mosquitoes may ingest anywhere from 100 to 1,000 immature cells during a blood meal, by the time the parasite ends up in the mosquito’s gut, only five or fewer spores, known as oocysts, remain.

This is where researchers targeted their attack. The gut is a complicated place, full of bacteria that help break down nutrients and digest food. Perhaps some of these bacteria could be enlisted to break down the Plasmodium spores as well.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute devised a genetically modified version of the Pantoes agglomerans bacteria that naturally lives in the mosquito gut. The new P. agglomerans acts much the same as ordinary P. agglomerans, and should be able to spread through wild mosquito populations. Except the engineered bacteria has one unique and deadly trait: It produces proteins that destroy Plasmodium oocysts.

This isn’t the first use of genetic modification strategies to quell mosquito-spread disease. In November we reported on a project that has introduced genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild. The new mosquitoes carry genes that kill their young—when they mate with native mosquito populations, the offspring die before they can fly.

This new approach doesn’t require modifying the mosquitoes directly, just their gut bacteria, which makes the technique more portable. More than 100 species of mosquito transmit malaria, and although the researchers only tested two, they wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the strategy “may well be ‘universal’ as effectiveness does not appear to be influenced by mosquito species.” And effective it was: the genetically enhanced bacteria suppressed populations of both the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum and the rodent malaria parasite Plasmodium berghei by 98 percent.


Image of Anopheles stephensi mosquito via Wellcome Images on Flickr

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. delmarjackson 1:11 pm 07/17/2012

    I made a simple mosquito fan trap for a dollar that hooks to a cheap box fan that will eliminate all indoor mosquitoes and if left outside, will over time remove them from the neighborhood. It only costs about a dollar in raw materials if you have a fan. I put the video on how you can easily make my fan trap on youtube.

    There is no excuse for you or your family or pets to suffer from mosquitos. You can run a fan all month long for about 2 dollars worth of electricity.

    How to make a $1 Homemade Mosquito Bag Fan Trap kills bugs dead

    Link to this

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