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Scientists have found a microbe that fully protects the mosquitoes from malaria infection.
In Kenya and the UK, the team says the finding has “huge potential” to control the disease.
Malaria is spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes, which in turn could protect people.
The researchers are now studying whether infected mosquitoes can be released into the wild, or use spores to kill the disease.
What kind of microbe is this?
Microsporidia MB, the malaria-blocking worm, was discovered by observing mosquitoes on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. It lives inside the insect’s intestines and genitals.
The researchers were not able to identify a single mosquito carrying the Microsporidia harboring the malaria parasite. And laboratory experiments, published in Nature Communications, confirmed that the microbe provides protection to the mosquitoes.
Microsporidia are, or at least closely related to, fungi and most of them are parasites.
This new species, however, may be beneficial to the mosquito and was found naturally in about 5 percent of the insects studied.
How big is this discovery?
“The data we’ve had so far say it’s 100% blockage, it’s a really serious malaria blockage,” Dr. Jeremy Herren, from Kenya’s International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) told the BBC.
He added: “It’s going to come as a surprise, I think people’s going to consider that a really big breakthrough.”
Each year, Malaria kills more than 400,000 people, most of them children under the age of five.
Although considerable progress has been made in the use of bed nets and insecticide spraying of homes, this has stalled in recent years. New methods are required for fighting malaria are generally accepted.
Why does malaria hinder microbe?
They do need to hammer out the fine points.
Yet Microsporidia MB may be priming the immune system of the mosquito, so it can fend off infections more effectively.
Or the presence of the microbe in the insect may have a deep effect on the metabolism of the mosquito, making it inhospitable for the parasite of malaria.
Infections with MB microsporidia appear life-long. If anything, the experiments show that they are getting more severe, so the effect of blocking malaria will be long-lasting.
How will this be used to fight malaria?
To make a major dent in malaria, at least 40 percent of mosquitoes in an area need to be infected with Microsporidia.
The microbe can be transmitted between adult mosquitoes and is also transferred to her offspring from the female.
The researchers are thus exploring two key strategies to increase the number of mosquitoes infected.
–Microsporidia form spores that may be released to infect mosquitoes en masse
–Male mosquitoes (which do not bite) can be infected in the laboratory and released into the wild to infect the females while they are having sex
“It’s a new development. We’re very optimistic about malaria control potential. It has enormous potential,” Prof Steven Sinkins, of the Glasgow Centre for Virus Research at MRC-University, told the BBC.
This concept of disease control using microbes is not unprecedented. A type of bacteria called Wolbachia has been shown to make it harder for mosquitoes to spread dengue fever in real-world trials.
What next happens?
Researchers need to understand how the microbe spreads, so they expect to do further research in Kenya.
Both methods, however, are fairly uncontroversial, as the species is already present in wild mosquitoes and does not add anything new.
It wouldn’t kill the mosquitoes either, so it wouldn’t impact ecosystems that depend on them as food. This is part of other tactics, such as a killer fungus that can destroy mosquito populations almost completely in weeks.