An insect’s own gut bacteria can be used in a Trojan horse capacity to help control the population of certain pests, including the mosquito that carries the Zika virus.
Researchers from Swansea University in Wales made that announcement in a study published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Their statement comes as officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) met with top Brazilian officials and called for all avenues to be explored in the battle against the virus that is sweeping through North and South America.
The Swansea University researchers said the gut bacteria technique can limit insect populations without using potentially toxic chemicals or harming other species such as honeybees.
“New approaches are urgently needed to reduce the global burden of pest insects and to investigate insect biology and disease transmission,” Paul Dyson, a professor at Swansea University Medical School and one of the lead researchers on the study, said in a statement. “This technology allows us to target insects much more effectively than conventional pesticides and without their side effects.”
Blocking Fertility Mechanisms
The researchers used a genetic technology that takes advantage of a natural process called RNA interference (RNAi).
In this process, cells are manipulated to minimize or silence the activity of certain genes, including those that control fertility.
The researchers tested this technique on two types of insects.
With the so-called kissing bug in Central and South America, the researchers said the RNAi technique suppressed fertility by up to 100 percent.
With the Western flower thrips, the technique increased the mortality rate of this agricultural pest’s larvae by 60 percent.
The researchers said the process could be adapted to battle the Aedes species of mosquito that carries the Zika virus.
The main problem with using the RNAi technique is it can be expensive and cumbersome to effectively deliver it to insects.
The researchers said using an insect’s gut bacteria is an “effective delivery vehicle for RNAi.” In this process, a friendly bacteria from the insect’s gut delivers a “switch off” command to specific genes.
“The symbiotic bacteria basically do all the hard work for us. They are programmed to manufacture the RNAi molecules inside the insect's body, for as long as needed, and they do this without being detected by the insect's immune system,” Dr. Miranda Whitten, another lead researcher who is associated with Swansea University College of Science, said in a statement.
All-Out Attack on Zika
The study findings were released as scientists and government officials are launching a multi-pronged attack on Zika.
About one in five people infected with Zika virus become ill, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The illness can cause fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, and red eyes. The symptoms are usually mild and last several days to a week.
There’s no vaccine or specific medication to treat Zika.
The biggest danger is to unborn children. If a pregnant woman contracts the virus it can cause the development of microcephaly in newborn infants.
The ailment produces a birth defect in which a baby’s head is smaller than infants of the same age. Those babies can have smaller brains that aren’t properly developed.
Because of that threat, officials in Brazil have announced plans to fight the virus by zapping millions of male mosquitoes with gamma rays to sterilize them.
In Washington, D.C., President Obama has asked Congress for nearly $2 billion to help stem the spread of the Zika virus.
There are about 90 reported cases of Zika. Health officials are also investigating 14 reports of the virus being transmitted through sexual activity instead of mosquito bites.
In Dallas, Texas, officials are starting the city’s mosquito abatement program a month early to combat the disease.
Two medical facilities in Houston, Texas, have introduced the first hospital-based rapid test for diagnosing Zika.