Researchers develop mosquito-killing algae to fight mosquito-related viruses

Lawrence Goodwyn

UT researchers have biologically engineered a new algae that can kill mosquitoes during their larval stage. 

Molecular biology professor and principal investigator David Herrin, UT alumnus and principal researcher Seongjoon Kang and co-researcher Obed W. Odom have developed a new method for killing the mosquitoes by incorporating a synthetic version of a Bacillus Thuringiensis israelensis (BTI) gene into chlamydomonas green algae. The BTI gene produces toxic Cry proteins that target mosquitoes. 

Consumers will be able to apply the algae on a large scale via airplane, or in their backyards through methods such as spray-bottles, according to Herrin. 

The team set out to combat mosquito-linked disease six years ago, after Herrin was awarded part of a $52 million grant for infectious disease research by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Scientists have engineered several synthetic genes that produce Cry proteins and placed them into algae to exterminate mosquito populations. 

“The first two [genes] we had made by a company, and the last one Joon made himself in the lab,” Herrin said. 

The team can produce three cry genes that each make proteins to target a different species of mosquito. Herrin is currently working on a fourth variation on the gene that would allow them to target even more species. 

The team’s algae should be effective against most household mosquito species in the U.S., including the Aedes genus, which carries Zika, West Nile Virus and dengue.

“The Aedes aegypti apparently is very common here in Texas, so Texas is in danger from these mosquitoes,” Odom said. 

Though the team is pleased with the amount of Cry protein they can produce, they are trying to intensify the concentration of genes in the algae so that they can use less of it, according to Herrin.

“Anything that the mosquitoes are carrying, [the algae] should help,” Odom said. “Anything that will wipe out the mosquitoes will prevent the transmission.”

Herrin said he hopes the algae will be available to the public in 2017. 

“It’s a strong algae to kill all the mosquitoes, and people can use it in their homes,” Kang said.

This article has been updated since its initial publication.