Bacteria genes offer new strategy for sterilizing mosquitoes

wolbachia bacteria
STERILITY CULPRITS Wolbachia bacteria (red) effectively sterilize a male mosquito by infecting the insect’s testes (blue), shown at 100 times magnification. Now, researchers have identified genes that may be responsible for the sterility.

A pair of bacterial genes may enable genetic engineering strategies for curbing populations of virus-transmitting mosquitoes.

Bacteria that make the insects effectively sterile have been used to reduce mosquito populations. Now, two research teams have identified genes in those bacteria that may be responsible for the sterility, the groups report online February 27 in Nature and Nature Microbiology.

“I think it’s a great advance,” says Scott O’Neill, a biologist with the Institute of Vector-Borne Disease at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. People have been trying for years to understand how the bacteria manipulate insects, he says.

Wolbachia bacteria “sterilize” male mosquitoes through a mechanism called cytoplasmic incompatibility, which affects sperm and eggs. When an infected male breeds with an uninfected female, his modified sperm kill the eggs after fertilization. When he mates with a likewise infected female, however, her eggs remove the sperm modification and develop normally.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville pinpointed a pair of genes, called cifA and cifB, connected to the sterility mechanism of Wolbachia. The genes are located not in the DNA of the bacterium itself, but in a virus embedded in its chromosome.

When the researchers took two genes from the Wolbachia