Scientists may have found the key to stopping mosquitoes in their tracks: spider venom. And they hope to use their discovery combat malaria.
Using a gene from the Blue Mountains funnel-web spider, researchers have successfully created a fungus that produces the spider’s mosquito-killing toxin, according to a new study published in the journal Science on Thursday.
"We're very excited," Raymond St. Leger, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland who led the work, told NPR. "The results are very good. This could save many lives."
Hundreds of millions of people are infected with malaria every year, with children and pregnant women being among the most vulnerable. The disease, spread primarily by female mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite, killed 435,000 people in 2017, the vast majority of whom lived on the African continent.
St. Leger’s team conducted their research in Burkina Faso, where more than 40% of the population lives in poverty and an estimated 28,000 people died of malaria in 2017. The two staggering statistics are not unrelated, St. Leger said.
"If you look at poverty through the world, where you get the worst poverty that's also where you get the highest incidence of malaria," St. Leger told NPR.
Despite these promising results, the approach of genetically modifying fungi to kill mosquitoes is not without controversy.
"I'm heavily worried that Africans are the preferred guinea pigs for experimentation, and Africa is going to become a large laboratory for risky experimentation," activist Nnimmo Bassey, of Nigeria-based Health of the Mother Earth Foundation, told NPR.
Some have also expressed concerns that the modified fungus will inadvertently harm other insects or disrupt ecosystems by wiping out mosquitoes altogether, though in tests the researchers said the fungus only proved fatal to mosquitoes, according to the BBC.
"Our technology is not aiming to drive the extinction of mosquitoes, what we're aiming to do is break malaria transmission in an area," Brian Lovett, a researcher on the team, told the BBC.
Still there is more work to be done. The scientists found that the modified fungus killed mosquitoes, though not as quickly as they would like. Within 45 days, the fungus had largely eliminated mosquitoes in the test environment, but St. Leger said the goal is to kill mosquitoes using the fungus before it has a chance to transmit malaria.
"If it just reduced the transmission of malaria by 5% that would still be hundreds of thousands of lives that benefited. And we think it could do quite a bit better than that," he said.