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Penn State receives grant to study malaria-bearing mosquitoes in search of control methods

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences has received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study a virus that infects malaria-bearing mosquitos and develop a means of genetically modifying mosquitoes more easily.

With that money, professor Jason Rasgon and his team have set out to study the virus AgDNV for the next five years, searching for a means of genetically tweaking the mosquitoes it impacts more easily. The hope is to in turn take that information and use it to develop means of malaria control.

“Routine genetic manipulation of this species has proven challenging, so the development of novel tools for genetic modification is critical for both applied strategies for malaria control and for basic research into this mosquito’s genetics and host-pathogen interactions,” Rasgon said.

Using what is known as a densovirus, coupled with specific genes inserted therein, the team hope to infect mosquitoes’ tissues and get them to express those genes. Once it is that readily accessible, they can manipulate it, altering the infectious virus with whatever genetic manipulations they desire.

“If you want to test a gene by turning it on or off, you wouldn’t need to develop a transgenic mosquito,” Rasgon said. “You just could pop it into the virus, and it will express that gene in the mosquito for you.”

Possible applications, infected through either water with mosquito larvae or injected directly into adult mosquitoes, would be to make mosquitoes simply unable to transmit malaria, kill them outright or at the very least shorten their lifespan. Likewise, mating or the laying of eggs would also pass the virus on. Since the virus researchers are working with is also naturally occurring, Rasgon has said it would be a safe control agent–nor does it target humans.

Though Rasgon has known the potential for his virus for about 10 years, this marks the first time he has received funding to pursue it.

Chris Galford

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