Researchers genetically modified (GM) Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes to develop gut microbiota that combats the malaria parasite. GM mosquitoes successfully mated with wild mosquitoes and passed along their disease-resistant trait.
In recent years, one new tool, genetic modification, has appeared especially promising. Two studies illustrated the potential of genetic engineering for fighting the disease. Both studies were conducted at Johns Hopkins University’s Malaria Research Institute.
One team, led by Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, genetically modified a bacterium that spreads easily among mosquitoes and stays in their bodies over the long term. The Serratia AS1 bacteria are found in mosquitoes’ ovaries as well as their gut, where the parasite develops.
The researchers modified the Serratia AS1 bacteria, adding five genes that code for antimalarial proteins. They found that the modified bacteria hindered parasite development, reducing the number of early-stage parasites in treated mosquitoes by 90% compared to untreated mosquitoes.
The second team, led by George Dimopoulos, genetically modified the mosquitoes themselves to boost their immune response and make them resistant to malaria infection. This made the mosquitoes less likely to spread malaria to humans, but it also altered the composition of their gut bacteria.
The modified Serratia creates a compound that makes it hard for the malaria parasite to continue to multiply and thrive but does not harm the mosquitoes that would usually carry that parasite and pass it on to us.
Researchers hope that fundamentally changing the guts of the insects will prove to be a useful solution. Next year, researchers hope to try hatching malaria-resistant mosquitoes in a somewhat more realistic setting, a net-covered greenhouse-like field station in Zambia.
Researchers acknowledge that the results in the real world may differ but remain optimistic about what these findings mean for combatting malaria in the future. The study was published in the journal Science.