Firefighters against dangerous mosquitoes: New technology can protect against the spread of tropical diseases

The warm season in Europe marks the beginning of the high season for mosquitoes. While they and their larvae serve as prey for many animals and thus play an important role in the ecosystem, humans find the small bloodsuckers rather annoying. Meanwhile, they can also become dangerous for us: Mosquitoes from tropical and Asian regions are increasingly appearing in Central Europe. They can transmit Zika or West Nile viruses, which trigger dangerous feverish illnesses.

A team of scientists from the Hessian LOEWE Center for Translational Biodiversity Genomics in Germany and partner institutions is showing how the further spread of these mosquito species can be prevented in a targeted and environmentally friendly way.

Of the approximately 3,500 mosquito species worldwide, about 100 are native to Europe. But they are more and more: favored by global trade and climate change, invasive species such as the Asian tiger mosquito, the Japanese mosquito or the yellow fever mosquito are increasingly establishing themselves here. They bring with them the ability to transmit viruses of originally tropical diseases: while West Nile virus has already established itself in Germany, dengue and yellow fever infections are also spreading northward from the Mediterranean region.

However, the control of invasive mosquitoes, whose larvae develop in water, represents a major challenge not only from a technological point of view, but also from a socio-political point of view. This is because innovations in laws and regulations under the German government’s “Insect Protection Action Programme” limit the use of pesticides, especially in and around bodies of water. The release of genetically modified mosquitoes is rejected by the majority of the population. But what is the best way to protect human health?

In an article published in the journal “Biotechnology Advances”, a consortium of researchers from Frankfurt and Giessen at the LOEWE TBG Center shows a way out of this dilemma between nature and health protection with a new technology they have developed. Their common goal is to build a sort of fire brigade against mosquito-borne tropical diseases.

Efficient monitoring of the spread of mosquitoes and viruses is initially made possible by the genetic analysis of water samples, the so-called “environmental DNA”. To this end, the team has already sequenced the genomes of various immigrant mosquitoes to develop procedures that enable reliable detection similar to a PCR test. In a second step, the new “RNA interference” technology is used.

“In this process, the mosquito larvae in the distribution area receive food that contains double-stranded ribonucleic acids, or RNA for short. These important carriers of information and functions, which are found in every cell of living organisms, then unfold their effect through the gut of the larvae and switch off some of their genes which are important for survival,” explains Mikls Blint, Professor of Genomics functional environment at the Justus Liebig University Giessen, the LOEWE Center TBG and the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center Frankfurt, one of the first authors of the study.The advantages of this method: “RNA molecules can be produced in such a way that they act only against the respective mosquito species and do not endanger other insect species or humans. Also, during their degradation, no toxic residues are left in the environment. And with this method, there will be no genetically modified mosquitoes capable of reproducing “Blint says.

Currently, the consortium teams are investigating the development of double-stranded RNAs particularly suitable for mosquito and virus control. Another big challenge is their “packaging”. “A suitable formulation for this should not disintegrate too quickly in the environment, but should be absorbed in particle form by water-dwelling mosquitoes,” reports Prof. Andreas Vilcinskas, head of the Bioresources section at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME in Giessen, where a solution is being worked on.

Vilcinskas is coordinating the establishment of “fire brigades” to combat invasive mosquitoes at the LOEWE TBG Center and partner institutions involved, such as Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Senckenberg Society for Nature Research , the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt and the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium. “Our publication shows how RNA interference, or RNAi for short, can be developed to be commercialized in Europe as an innovative and environmentally friendly technology for controlling so-called vector organisms that transmit pathogens. RNAi-based sprays are also being developed against insect pests such as the Colorado potato beetle and should soon be on the market as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional pesticides,” says Vilcinskas, describing promising potential applications of the new method.

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