Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have confirmed that a benign bacterium called Wolbachia pipientis can completely block transmission of Zika virus in Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species responsible for passing the virus to humans.
Matthew Aliota, a scientist at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine(SVM) and first author of the paper — published today (July 1, 2016) in the journal Scientific Reports — says the bacteria could present a “novel biological control mechanism,” aiding efforts to stop the spread of Zika virus.
Thirty-nine countries and territories in the Americas have been affected by the Zika epidemic, and it is expected that at least 4 million people will be infected by the end of the year. Scientists believe the virus is responsible for a host of brain defects in developing fetuses, including microcephaly, and has contributed to an uptick in cases of a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome. There are not yet any approved Zika virus vaccines or antiviral medications, and ongoing mosquito control strategies have not been adequate to contain the spread of the virus.
Researchers led by Jorge Osorio, a UW–Madison professor of pathobiological sciences, and Scott O’Neill of the the Eliminate Dengue Program (EDP) and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, are already releasing mosquitoes harboring the Wolbachia bacterium in pilot studies in Colombia, Brazil, Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia to help control the spread of dengue virus. Their work is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
An important feature of Wolbachia is that it is self-sustainable, making it a very low-cost approach for controlling mosquito-borne viral diseases that are affecting many tropical countries around the world.