Scientists have finally found a powerful ally in malaria prevention. It’s a neurotoxin that isn’t harmful to any living thing apart from the Anopheles mosquitoes that spread the disease.
Nearly half the world’s population lives in areas vulnerable to malaria which kills roughly 450,000 people per year, most of them children and pregnant women. The mosquitos are developing resistance to the chemicals used to control them. Many are also concerned about the toxicity of these same chemicals.
About 30 years ago, scientists discovered a particular strain of bacteria that kills the dreaded Anopheles mosquitos. It wasn’t initially understood how the bacteria proved so lethal to the mosquitos. That has very recently changed.
An international team of researchers led by Sarjeet Gill, distinguished professor of molecular, cell and systems biology at UC Riverside, has identified a particular neurotoxin produced by the bacteria and determined how exactly it kills Anopheles. Nature Communications recently published the fascinating work.
Breakthrough Ten Years in the Making
It took Professor Gill and his team some 10 years to achieve this breakthrough in their quest to understand this fascinating bacteria. Gill attributes his success to modern gene sequencing techniques. The team hit the bacteria with radiation, which created mutant bacterial strains that could not produce the toxin. When comparing the non-toxic strain to that one which kills Anopheles, the team identified proteins in the bacteria that generated the toxin.
Neurotoxins generally target vertebrates. PMP1, however, bears 30 percent chemical similarity to botulinum or tetanus. Both are highly toxic to humans. Since this neurotoxin doesn’t affect humans, vertebrates, fish, or even other insects, Gill supposes that the bacteria which produce PMP1 likely co-evolved alongside the Anopheles mosquitoes.
“It was surprising for us that PMP1 is not toxic to mice even by injection,” Gill said.
Members of Gill’s team include distinguished scholars such as Estefania Contreras, Jianwu Chen, Harpal Dhillon, and Nadia Qureshi as well as a group of graduate student Swati Chawla from UC Riverside, Geoffrey Masuyer and Pål Stenmark from Stockholm University and Han Lim Lee from the Institute for Medical Research in Malaysia. The research was made possible by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The team has applied for a patent on this discovery. They now hope to attract partners to assist in the development of a bacteria-based Anopheles insecticide. There is a possibility of additional research.
“There is a high likelihood that if PMP1 evolved to kill the Anopheles mosquito, there are other toxins that can kill other disease-spreading pests,” Gill said in an interview. “This could just be the start of a new way to prevent hundreds of thousands from getting sick and dying every year.”
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