Fighting Malaria

Malaria is a serious social as well as medical problem in tropical regions. A disease, ultimately, of the liver, it is caused by several species of the Plasmodium genus of microorganisms, and causes a fever that can potentially be fatal. Malaria reportedly struck 216 million people in 2010, according to the World Health Organization, and is estimated that as many as 1.2 million died, many of them children. Although there are several efficacious treatments known, there is no malaria vaccine, though research is ongoing. The disease is spread by mosquito bites, and prevention typically focuses on the use of insecticides to keep the mosquito population down and mosquito repellant and nets to keep them away from people.

Now researchers are looking at other ways to curb the spread of the disease. One approach is to treat the mosquitoes that carry the disease. It sounds odd, but it works: if the mosquitoes can be healed, and the infectious microbe killed, mosquito bites become merely annoying, rather than potentially deadly. Now a group of scientists may have found a way to do just that, and it involves bacteria. Enterobacter is a type of bacteria that is sometimes naturally found in mosquitoes’ guts; it creates an environment hostile to the plasmodian. Researchers studying malaria found evidence that it can be fed to mosquitoes that don’t have it naturally, and if those mosquitoes then get infected with malaria, the microbe dies and can’t infect anyone else.

Another research team, in Baltimore, has observed a similar phenomenon using a different, though related, bacterium, Pantoea agglomerans. That bacterium needs to be genetically altered in order to have its effect on plasmodians but it’s almost completely effective in healing the mosquitoes. The researchers say they had previously been genetically modifying the mosquitoes, but they are more complex than bacteria and genetic modification is less effective. The genetically modified bacteria destroys the malaria, potentially saving lives.

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