Anopheles mosquitoes’ sexual biology may be key to their unique ability to transmit malaria in humans, scientists have found, paving the way for new methods for malaria control.
Through analysis of 16 Anopheles genomes, researchers found that these mosquitoes’ reproductive traits evolved along with their capacity to transmit the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria.
These findings may provide a new target for malaria control, particularly in regions hardest hit by the disease.
“Our study is the first to reveal the evolutionary dynamics between the sexes that are likely responsible for shaping the ability of Anopheles mosquitoes to transmit malaria to humans,” said senior author Flaminia Catteruccia, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard Chan School and University of Perugia.
Anopheles mosquitoes are the only mosquitoes capable of transmitting human malaria; however, the species within this genus vary widely in their ability to do so, for reasons that remain unknown.
Researchers analysed nine globally dispersed Anopheles species, enabling reconstruction of the evolutionary history of their reproductive traits and capacity to transmit malaria.
They found that two key male reproductive traits in Anopheles are acquired and evolved together over time: transferring ejaculate as a gelatinous rod-shaped structure called the mating plug, and the ability to synthesise a steroid hormone contained in that plug called 20-hydroxyecdysone (20E).
Researchers also demonstrated that the evolution of these male traits drove reciprocal adaptations in females strongly linked to the mosquitoes’ capacity to transmit malaria.
This study adds to previous findings from this research group showing that sexual transfer of 20E induces a series of dramatic changes in the female, fundamentally altering her physiology and behaviour.
These changes affect a female’s reproductive output, longevity and immune response to Plasmodium parasites, all key factors in malaria transmission.
The findings may also be applicable to dengue and West Nile virus, which are transmitted by the Aedes and Culex mosquitoes, respectively. In these species some aspects of reproductive biology are similar to Anopheles.
By identifying factors critical for increasing the ability of mosquitoes to transmit malaria, compounds developed to specifically target those factors could be incorporated into existing mosquito control technologies, boosting their overall effectiveness.
The study was published in the journal Science.