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Combating Mosquitoes with an Engineered Fungus

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Caption: Anopheles coluzzii mosquito with transgenic fungus (green) emerging from its body after death. Credit: Brian Lovett, University of Maryland, College Park

Almost everywhere humans live on this planet, mosquitoes carry microbes that cause potentially deadly diseases, from West Nile virus to malaria. While chemical insecticides offer a line of defense, mosquito populations often grow resistant to them. So, it’s intriguing to learn that we may now have another ally in this important fight: a genetically engineered fungus!

Reporting in the journal Science, an international research team supported by NIH describes how this new approach might be used to combat malaria [1]. A fungus called Metarhizium pingshaense is a natural enemy of the mosquito, but, by itself, it kills mosquitoes too slowly to control transmission of malaria. To make this fungus an even more efficient mosquito killer, researchers engineered it to carry a gene encoding a toxin, derived from a spider, that is deadly to insects. Tests of the souped-up fungus in a unique contained facility designed to simulate a West African village found it safely and rapidly killed insecticide-resistant mosquitoes, reducing their numbers by more than 99 percent within 45 days.

Mosquitoes are the deadliest animals in the world. More than 3.2 billion people—about half of all humans—are at risk for malaria, and more than 400,000 die each year from the disease. Other mosquito-borne illnesses, including Zika and dengue viruses, sicken millions more each year. By combining existing insect control strategies with the latest technical innovation, it should be possible to lower those numbers.

In the latest study, Raymond St. Leger and Brian Lovett, University of Maryland, College Park, teamed with Abdoulaye Diabate and colleagues from Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé/Cente Muraz, Burkina Faso, West Africa. The researchers employed a strategy that’s been in use around the world for more than 100 years to control agricultural pests.

The approach involves the fungal species Metarhizium, which kills a variety of insects. Earlier studies had shown that spores from a specific Metarhizium strain could make a big enough dent in a mosquito population to raise the possibility of using the fungus to reduce infective bites among humans [2]. But killing off the mosquitoes required very large quantities of fungal spores and usually took a couple of weeks.

Here’s where things turned innovative. To boost the fungus’s potency, St. Leger and colleagues used genetic engineering to add a toxin derived from the Australian Blue Mountains funnel-web spider. The toxin came with a major advantage: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already has approved its use as a safe-and-effective insecticidal protein.

Besides giving the engineered fungus that ability to produce a spider toxin, the researchers added another clever element. They didn’t want the fungus to produce the toxin all the time—only after it comes in contact with a mosquito’s hemolymph, the insect equivalent of blood. So, they needed to insert a control switch, and the researchers knew just where to find the needed part.

Once inside a mosquito, the fungus naturally produces a structural protein called collagen that shields it from the insect’s immune system. A genetic switch that turns “on” when it detects an insect’s hemolymph controls that collagen production. To ensure that the spider toxin was produced at just the right time, the researchers hotwired their Metarhizium to begin producing it under the control of this same genetic switch.

The next step was to test this modified organism in a more natural, but controlled, environment. The researchers spent more than a year in Burkina Faso building a specialized facility called a MosquitoSphere. It’s similar to a very large greenhouse, but with mosquito netting instead of glass.

The MosquitoSphere has six separate compartments, four of which contain West African huts, along with native plants and breeding sites for mosquitoes. The researchers hung a black cotton sheet, previously soaked in sesame oil, on the wall of a hut in each of three chambers.

In one hut, the sesame oil contained genetically engineered fungal spores. In the second hut, the oil contained natural fungal spores. In the third hut, there were no spores at all. Then, they released 1,000 adult male and 500 adult female mosquitoes into each chamber and watched what happened over the next 45 days.

In the hut without spores, the mosquitoes established a stable population of almost 1,400. In the chamber with the natural spores, 450 mosquitoes survived. But, in the chamber with the engineered fungus, the researchers counted just 13 survivors—too few to sustain a viable population.

The researchers say they suspect the fungus would be relatively easy to contain in nature. It’s sticky and not easily airborne. The spores are also extremely sensitive to sunlight, making it difficult for them to travel far. Importantly, the fungus didn’t harm other beneficial insects, including honeybees.

Caution is warranted before considering the release of a genetically engineered organism into the wild. In the meantime, the genetically engineered fungus also will serve as a platform for continued technology development.

The system can be readily adapted to target mosquitoes or other insects , perhaps using different natural toxins if insects might grow resistant to Metarhizium just as they have to traditional insecticides. Interestingly, the researchers note that the engineered fungi appear to make mosquitoes sensitive to chemical insecticides again, suggesting that the two types of insect-killers might be used successfully in combination.


[1] Transgenic Metarhizium rapidly kills mosquitoes in a malaria-endemic region of Burkina Faso. Lovett B, Bilgo E, Millogo SA, Ouattarra AK, Sare I, Gnambani EJ, Dabire RK, Diabate A, St Leger RJ. Science. 2019 May 31;364(6443):894-897.

[2] An entomopathogenic fungus for control of adult African malaria mosquitoes. Scholte EJ, Ng’habi K, Kihonda J, Takken W, Paaijmans K, Abdulla S, Killeen GF, Knols BG. Science. 2005 Jun 10;308(5728):1641-2.


Transgenic Fungus Rapidly Killed Malaria Mosquitoes in West African Study (University of Maryland News Release)

Malaria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Funnel-Web Spiders (Australian Museum, Sydney)

Video: 2016 Grand Challenges Spotlight Talk: Abdoulaye Diabaté (YouTube)

Raymond St. Leger (University of Maryland, College Park)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

LabTV: Curious About the Microbiome

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Keisha FindleyWhen people think about the human microbiome—the scientific term for all of the microbes that live in and on our bodies—the focus is often on bacteria. But Keisha Findley, the young researcher featured in today’s LabTV video, is fascinated by a different part of the microbiome: fungi.

While earning her Ph.D. at Duke University, Durham, N.C., Findley zeroed in on Cryptococcus neoformans, a common, single-celled fungus that can lead to life-threatening infections, especially in people with weakened immune systems. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD, she is part of an effort to survey all of the fungi, as well as bacteria, that live on healthy human skin. The goal is to get a baseline understanding of these microbial communities and then examine how they differ between healthy people and those with skin conditions such as acne, athlete’s foot, skin ulcers, psoriasis, or eczema.

Snapshots of Life: Host vs. Pathogen

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Cryptoccocus neoformans

Caption: This scanning electron microscopy image shows mouse macrophages (green) interacting with a fungal cell (blue).
Credit: Sabriya Stukes and Hillary Guzik, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Macrophages are white blood cells that generally destroy foreign invaders by engulfing them. It’s a tried-and-true strategy, but it doesn’t always work. Cryptoccocus neoformans, a deadly fungal pathogen commonly found in the feces of pigeons, can foil even the best macrophages. No one has captured this grand escape—but researchers are getting a whole lot closer to doing so.

Sabriya Stukes, an NIH-funded microbiologist at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, studies the interactions between C. neoformans and macrophages to determine how the former causes the lung infection cryptococcosis, which can be deadly for people with compromised immune systems. Stukes believes what makes C. neoformans so dangerous is that it can survive the acid death chamber inside macrophages—a situation that spells doom for most other pathogens. A big reason behind this fungus’s power of survival is its thick coat of polysaccharides, which serves as woolly-looking armor. Once a macrophage engulfs the fungus, this coat can give the white blood cell “indigestion,” prompting it to spit the fungus back into the lungs where it can cause disease. 

Yes, It’s True: There’s Fungus Among Us

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A fluorescent pink blob with a blue-green shaft surrounded by purple and blue dots

Caption: A fluorescent microscope image of a human hair shaft in the skin surrounded by bacteria (purple) and fungi (blue).
Credit: Alex Valm, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH.

Athlete’s foot, ringworm, diaper rash, dandruff, some cases of sinusitis, and vaginal yeast infections are all caused by fungi. These microscopic co-travelers live in the air, water, soil, and, so it happens, on our body. NIH researchers have just completed the first census of the fungi that live on the human body, and it’s quite a diverse collection [1].

The researchers used Q-tips and toenail clippings to sample 14 sites from 10 healthy human volunteers and then analyzed the DNA to determine the identity of the fungi in these locations. They focused on sites—like the back of the head, nostril, feet, and groin, for example—that are frequently plagued with diseases thought to be caused by fungi. (The same team of researchers took a similar approach a few years back to catalog all the bacteria that live on human skin [2].)