September 09, 2018

Research Roundup: Predatory bacteria, genetically engineered mosquitoes, and tracking disease outbreaks from space

Ansley Kahn
Senior Program Assistant
PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

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Germ-eating microbes may offer a new line of defense in fighting back against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to lab studies funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The most impressive predatory bacteria from the studies was an organism called Bdellovibrio, which preyed upon 145 of the 168 human pathogens tested, invading larger bacteria and eating them from the inside out. Researchers collected remaining ‘survivor’ bacteria, allowing them to reproduce to see if they were able to mutate and resist attacks from Bdellovibrio; however, no direct mutants ever became resistant. This microbe-eating method has been shown effective in fighting bacterial lung disease in rats. No germ-eating microbe experiments have been performed in humans to date.

The government of Burkina Faso has granted scientists permission to release genetically engineered mosquitoes, marking a key step in using bioengineering to eventually eliminate malaria in the region. The impending release will also mark the first time a genetically engineered animal will be released into the wild in Africa. The mosquitoes being released will be mostly male with a ‘sterile male’ mutation, meaning none will be able to produce offspring. Although these mosquitoes won’t have any specific mutations related to malaria transmission, researchers hope this release will foster improved trust in science and research among government regulators and local residents and inform future releases. This inaugural release will lay the groundwork for teams in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Uganda to eventually release “gene drive” mosquitoes that will dramatically and rapidly reduce the mosquito population.

NASA is using weather satellites to track and predict disease outbreaks before they occur, deploying this technology to track cholera outbreaks in Yemen. Given cholera infections typically result from drinking contaminated water, the team at NASA used environmental data such as rainfall levels and water and air temperatures to build their prediction map and pinpoint where the worst cholera outbreaks will likely occur. NASA’s model proved 92 percent accurate in predicting cholera outbreaks in Yemen, though the information came too late to be useful to the medical teams on the ground. Researchers have continued to improve their prediction algorithm and hope to deploy their data this year to direct health workers to critical areas and save lives.