Recent advances in genetic engineering are bringing new promise for controlling mosquito populations that transmit deadly pathogens. Here we discuss past and current efforts to engineer mosquito strains that are refractory to disease transmission or are suitable for suppressing wild disease-transmitting populations.
Gene drives may be capable of addressing ecological problems by altering entire populations of wild organisms, but their use has remained largely theoretical due to technical constraints. Here we consider the potential for RNA-guided gene drives based on the CRISPR nuclease Cas9 to serve as a general method for spreading altered traits through wild populations over many generations. We detail likely capabilities, discuss limitations, and provide novel precautionary strategies to control the spread of gene drives and reverse genomic changes. The ability to edit populations of sexual species would offer substantial benefits to humanity and the environment. For example, RNA-guided gene drives could potentially prevent the spread of disease, support agriculture by reversing pesticide and herbicide resistance in insects and weeds, and control damaging invasive species. However, the possibility of unwanted ecological effects and near-certainty of spread across political borders demand careful assessment of each potential application. We call for thoughtful, inclusive, and well-informed public discussions to explore the responsible use of this currently theoretical technology.
gene drive; ecological engineering; population engineering; cas9; CRISPR; emerging technology; none
Current vector-based malaria control strategies are threatened by the rise of biochemical and behavioural resistance in mosquitoes. Researching mosquito traits of immunity and fertility is required to find potential targets for new vector control strategies. The seminal transglutaminase AgTG3 coagulates male Anopheles gambiae seminal fluids, forming a ‘mating plug’ that is required for male reproductive success. Inhibitors of AgTG3 can be useful both as chemical probes of A. gambiae reproductive biology and may further the development of new chemosterilants for mosquito population control.
A targeted library of 3-bromo-4,5-dihydroxoisoxazole inhibitors were synthesized and screened for inhibition of AgTG3 in a fluorescent, plate-based assay. Positive hits were tested for in vitro activity using cross-linking and mass spectrometry, and in vivo efficacy in laboratory mating assays.
A targeted chemical library was screened for inhibition of AgTG3 in a fluorescent plate-based assay using its native substrate, plugin. Several inhibitors were identified with IC50 < 10 μM. Preliminary structure-activity relationships within the library support the stereo-specificity and preference for aromatic substituents in the chemical scaffold. Both inhibition of plugin cross-linking and covalent modification of the active site cysteine of AgTG3 were verified. Administration of an AgTG3 inhibitor to A. gambiae males by intrathoracic injection led to a 15% reduction in mating plug transfer in laboratory mating assays.
A targeted screen has identified chemical inhibitors of A. gambiae transglutaminase 3 (AgTG3). The most potent inhibitors are known inhibitors of human transglutaminase 2, suggesting a common binding pose may exist within the active site of both enzymes. Future efforts to develop additional inhibitors will provide chemical tools to address important biological questions regarding the role of the A. gambiae mating plug. A second use for transglutaminase inhibitors exists for the study of haemolymph coagulation and immune responses to wound healing in insects.
Steroid hormones transferred by the male during sex trigger a molecular cascade of events that increases the reproductive success of females in Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes.
Molecular interactions between male and female factors during mating profoundly affect the reproductive behavior and physiology of female insects. In natural populations of the malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae, blood-fed females direct nutritional resources towards oogenesis only when inseminated. Here we show that the mating-dependent pathway of egg development in these mosquitoes is regulated by the interaction between the steroid hormone 20-hydroxy-ecdysone (20E) transferred by males during copulation and a female Mating-Induced Stimulator of Oogenesis (MISO) protein. RNAi silencing of MISO abolishes the increase in oogenesis caused by mating in blood-fed females, causes a delay in oocyte development, and impairs the function of male-transferred 20E. Co-immunoprecipitation experiments show that MISO and 20E interact in the female reproductive tract. Moreover MISO expression after mating is induced by 20E via the Ecdysone Receptor, demonstrating a close cooperation between the two factors. Male-transferred 20E therefore acts as a mating signal that females translate into an increased investment in egg development via a MISO-dependent pathway. The identification of this male–female reproductive interaction offers novel opportunities for the control of mosquito populations that transmit malaria.
Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes are the most deadly vectors of human malaria. The reproductive ability of these mosquitoes contributes to their role as disease vectors as it ensures high population densities for malaria transmission. The number of eggs developed by females after blood feeding depends on whether they have previously mated. Indeed in natural mosquito populations, virgin females rarely develop eggs when blood fed. Here we report on the identification of a molecular interaction between 20-hydroxy-ecdysone (20E), a steroid hormone transferred by the male during sex, and the Mating-Induced Stimulator of Oogenesis (MISO), a female reproductive protein, expression of which is triggered by mating and leads to increased egg production. We show that the expression of MISO after mating is regulated by 20E via the Ecdysone receptor (EcR). Experimental silencing of MISO reduces the ability of mated females to develop eggs after blood feeding, by reducing expression of a vitellogenic lipid transporter. By showing how male mosquitoes contribute to oogenesis in females, we identify a molecular pathway that can be targeted to reduce the reproductive success of natural mosquito populations to aid malaria control.
Human malaria, a major public health burden in tropical and subtropical countries, is transmitted exclusively by the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito. Malaria control strategies aimed at inducing sexual sterility in natural vector populations are an attractive alternative to the use of insecticides. However, despite their importance as disease vectors, limited information is available on the molecular mechanisms regulating fertility in Anopheles mosquitoes. In the major malaria vector, An. gambiae, the full complement of sperm and seminal fluid required for a female’s lifelong egg production is obtained from a single mating event. This single mating has important consequences for the physiology and behavior of An. gambiae females: in particular, they become refractory to further insemination, and they start laying eggs. In other insects including Drosophila, similar post-copulatory changes are induced by seminal proteins secreted by the male accessory glands and transferred to the female during mating. In this review, we analyze the current state of knowledge on the function and characterization of male seminal proteins in An. gambiae, and provide a comparative assessment of the role of these male reproductive factors in other mosquito vectors of human disease in which female post-copulatory behavior has been studied. Knowledge of the factors and mechanisms regulating fertility in An. gambiae and other vectors can help the design of novel control strategies to fight the spread of disease.
Anopheles; Fertility; Seminal fluid; Sperm; Post-mating response; Vector control; Malaria; Protease; Redox; Acps; Copulation; Reproduction; Sex; Sterile
Mosquito transgenesis offers new promises for the genetic control of vector-borne infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Genetic control strategies require the release of large number of male mosquitoes into field populations, whether they are based on the use of sterile males (sterile insect technique, SIT) or on introducing genetic traits conferring refractoriness to disease transmission (population replacement). However, the current absence of high-throughput techniques for sorting different mosquito populations impairs the application of these control measures.
A method was developed to generate large mosquito populations of the desired sex and genotype. This method combines flow cytometry and the use of Anopheles gambiae transgenic lines that differentially express fluorescent markers in males and females.
Fluorescence-assisted sorting allowed single-step isolation of homozygous transgenic mosquitoes from a mixed population. This method was also used to select wild-type males only with high efficiency and accuracy, a highly desirable tool for genetic control strategies where the release of transgenic individuals may be problematic. Importantly, sorted males showed normal mating ability compared to their unsorted brothers.
The developed method will greatly facilitate both laboratory studies of mosquito vectorial capacity requiring high-throughput approaches and future field interventions in the fight against infectious disease vectors.
Malaria; Mosquito; Transgenesis; Fluorescence-assisted sorting; Sexing; Anopheles gambiae; piggyBac
During copulation, the major Afro-tropical malaria vector Anopheles gambiae s.s. transfers male accessory gland (MAG) proteins to females as a solid mass (i.e. the "mating plug"). These proteins are postulated to function as important modulators of female post-mating responses. To understand the role of selective forces underlying the evolution of these proteins in the A. gambiae complex, we carried out an evolutionary analysis of gene sequence and expression divergence on a pair of paralog genes called AgAcp34A-1 and AgAcp34A-2. These encode MAG-specific proteins which, based on homology with Drosophila, have been hypothesized to play a role in sperm viability and function.
Genetic analysis of 6 species of the A. gambiae complex revealed the existence of a third paralog (68-78% of identity), that we named AgAcp34A-3. FISH assays showed that this gene maps in the same division (34A) of chromosome-3R as the other two paralogs. In particular, immuno-fluorescence assays targeting the C-terminals of AgAcp34A-2 and AgAcp34A-3 revealed that these two proteins are localized in the posterior part of the MAG and concentrated at the apical portion of the mating plug. When transferred to females, this part of the plug lies in proximity to the duct connecting the spermatheca to the uterus, suggesting a potential role for these proteins in regulating sperm motility. AgAcp34A-3 is more polymorphic than the other two paralogs, possibly because of relaxation of purifying selection. Since both unequal crossing-over and gene conversion likely homogenized the members of this gene family, the interpretation of the evolutionary patterns is not straightforward. Although several haplotypes of the three paralogs are shared by most A. gambiae s.l. species, some fixed species-specific replacements (mainly placed in the N- and C-terminal portions of the secreted peptides) were also observed, suggesting some lineage-specific adaptation.
Progress in understanding the signaling cascade in the A. gambiae reproductive pathway will elucidate the interaction of this MAG-specific protein family with their female counterparts. This knowledge will allow a better evaluation of the relative importance of genes involved in the reproductive isolation and fertility of A. gambiae species and could help the interpretation of the observed evolutionary patterns.
Genes involved in post-mating processes of multiple mating organisms are known to evolve rapidly due to coevolution driven by sexual conflict among male-female interacting proteins. In the malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae - a monandrous species in which sexual conflict is expected to be absent or minimal - recent data strongly suggest that proteolytic enzymes specifically expressed in the female lower reproductive tissues are involved in the processing of male products transferred to females during mating. In order to better understand the role of selective forces underlying the evolution of proteins involved in post-mating responses, we analysed a cluster of genes encoding for three serine proteases that are down-regulated after mating, two of which specifically expressed in the atrium and one in the spermatheca of A. gambiae females.
The analysis of polymorphisms and divergence of these female-expressed proteases in closely related species of the A. gambiae complex revealed a high level of replacement polymorphisms consistent with relaxed evolutionary constraints of duplicated genes, allowing to rapidly fix novel replacements to perform new or more specific functions. Adaptive evolution was detected in several codons of the 3 genes and hints of episodic selection were also found. In addition, the structural modelling of these proteases highlighted some important differences in their substrate specificity, and provided evidence that a number of sites evolving under selective pressures lie relatively close to the catalytic triad and/or on the edge of the specificity pocket, known to be involved in substrate recognition or binding. The observed patterns suggest that these proteases may interact with factors transferred by males during mating (e.g. substrates, inhibitors or pathogens) and that they may have differently evolved in independent A. gambiae lineages.
Our results - also examined in light of constraints in the application of selection-inference methods to the closely related species of the A. gambiae complex - reveal an unexpectedly intricate evolutionary scenario. Further experimental analyses are needed to investigate the biological functions of these genes in order to better interpret their molecular evolution and to assess whether they represent possible targets for limiting the fertility of Anopheles mosquitoes in malaria vector control strategies.
molecular evolution; reproduction; adaptive evolution; gene duplication; Anopheles gambiae complex
Tissue-specific promoters controlling the expression of transgenes in Anopheles mosquitoes represent a valuable tool both for studying the interaction between these malaria vectors and the Plasmodium parasites they transmit and for novel malaria control strategies based on developing Plasmodium-refractory mosquitoes by expressing anti-parasitic genes. With this aim we have studied the promoter regions of two genes from the most important malaria vector, Anopheles gambiae, whose expression is strongly induced upon blood feeding.
We analysed the A. gambiae Antryp1 and G12 genes, which we have shown to be midgut-specific and maximally expressed at 24 hours post-bloodmeal (PBM). Antryp1, required for bloodmeal digestion, encodes one member of a family of 7 trypsin genes. The G12 gene, of unknown function, was previously identified in our laboratory in a screen for genes induced in response to a bloodmeal. We fused 1.1 kb of the upstream regions containing the putative promoter of these genes to reporter genes and transformed these into the Indian malaria vector A. stephensi to see if we could recapitulate the expression pattern of the endogenous genes. Both the Antryp1 and G12 upstream regions were able to drive female-predominant, midgut-specific expression in transgenic mosquitoes. Expression of the Antryp1-driven reporter in transgenic A. stephensi lines was low, undetectable by northern blot analysis, and failed to fully match the induction kinetics of the endogenous Antryp1 gene in A. gambiae. This incomplete conservation of expression suggests either subtle differences in the transcriptional machinery between A. stephensi and A. gambiae or that the upstream region chosen lacked all the control elements. In contrast, the G12 upstream region was able to faithfully reproduce the expression profile of the endogenous A. gambiae gene, showing female midgut specificity in the adult mosquito and massive induction PBM, peaking at 24 hours.
Our studies on two putative blood-meal induced, midgut-specific promoters validate the use of G12 upstream regulatory regions to drive targeted transgene expression coinciding spatially and temporally with pre-sporogonic stages of Plasmodium parasites in the mosquito, offering the possibility of manipulating vector competence or performing functional studies on vector-parasite interactions.
The mating plug is a key regulator of mosquito fertility.
Insect seminal fluid proteins are powerful modulators of many aspects of female physiology and behaviour including longevity, egg production, sperm storage, and remating. The crucial role of these proteins in reproduction makes them promising targets for developing tools aimed at reducing the population sizes of vectors of disease. In the malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae, seminal secretions produced by the male accessory glands (MAGs) are transferred to females in the form of a coagulated mass called the mating plug. The potential of seminal fluid proteins as tools for mosquito control demands that we improve our limited understanding of the composition and function of the plug. Here, we show that the plug is a key determinant of An. gambiae reproductive success. We uncover the composition of the plug and demonstrate it is formed through the cross-linking of seminal proteins mediated by a MAG-specific transglutaminase (TGase), a mechanism remarkably similar to mammalian semen coagulation. Interfering with TGase expression in males inhibits plug formation and transfer, and prevents females from storing sperm with obvious consequences for fertility. Moreover, we show that the MAG-specific TGase is restricted to the anopheline lineage, where it functions to promote sperm storage rather than as a mechanical barrier to re-insemination. Taken together, these data represent a major advance in our understanding of the factors shaping Anopheles reproductive biology.
Male seminal fluid proteins trigger a wide range of behavioural and physiological changes in females and can have important effects on reproductive success. In many animals, seminal fluid is transferred to females as a gelatinous mass termed a mating plug. Although many hypotheses have been put forward to explain the function of mating plugs, their precise role in most organisms remains unclear. We have studied the composition, mechanism of formation, and function of the mating plug in the mosquito Anopheles gambiae, the principal vector of human malaria. We show that the plug is formed through the action of a transglutaminase enzyme that links seminal fluid proteins together resulting in semen coagulation. This process is similar to the way seminal fluid is coagulated in mammals. Interfering with the production of this transglutaminase prevented plug formation. Females that did not receive a plug failed to store sperm correctly, with important consequences for fertility. Our data show that the mating plug is an important feature of An. gambiae reproduction, and reinforce the notion that a deeper understanding of mosquito reproductive biology can aid efforts to eradicate these disease vectors.
The last few years have witnessed a considerable expansion in the number of tools available to perform molecular and genetic studies on the genome of Anopheles mosquitoes, the vectors of human malaria. As a consequence, knowledge of aspects of the biology of mosquitoes, such as immunity, reproduction and behaviour, that are relevant to their ability to transmit disease is rapidly increasing, and could be translated into concrete benefits for malaria control strategies. Amongst the most important scientific advances, the development of transgenic technologies for Anopheles mosquitoes provides a crucial opportunity to improve current vector control measures or design novel ones. In particular, the use of genetic modification of the mosquito genome could provide for a more effective deployment of the sterile insect technique (SIT) against vector populations in the field. Currently, SIT relies on the release of radiation sterilized males, which compete with wild males for mating with wild females. The induction of sterility in males through the genetic manipulation of the mosquito genome, already achieved in a number of other insect species, could eliminate the need for radiation and increase the efficiency of SIT-based strategies. This paper provides an overview of the mechanisms already in use for inducing sterility by transgenesis in Drosophila and other insects, and speculates on possible ways to apply similar approaches to Anopheles mosquitoes.
The success of the sterile insect technique (SIT) and other genetic strategies designed to eliminate large populations of insects relies on the efficient inundative releases of competitive, sterile males into the natural habitat of the target species. As released sterile females do not contribute to the sterility in the field population, systems for the efficient mass production and separation of males from females are needed. For vector species like mosquitoes, in which only females bite and transmit diseases, the thorough removal of females before release while leaving males competent to mate is a stringent prerequisite. Biological, genetic and transgenic approaches have been developed that permit efficient male-female separation for some species considered for SIT. However, most sex separation methods have drawbacks and many of these methods are not directly transferable to mosquitoes. Unlike genetic and transgenic systems, biological methods that rely on sexually dimorphic characters, such as size or development rate, are subject to natural variation, requiring regular adjustment and re-calibration of the sorting systems used. The yield can be improved with the optimization of rearing, but the scale of mass production places practical limits on what is achievable, resulting in a poor rearing to output ratio. High throughput separation is best achieved with scalable genetic or transgenic approaches.
Homing endonuclease genes (HEGs) are ‘selfish’ genetic elements that combine the capability to selectively disrupt specific gene sequences with the ability to rapidly spread from a few individuals to an entire population through homologous recombination repair events. Because of these properties, HEGs are regarded as promising candidates to transfer genetic modifications from engineered laboratory mosquitoes to wild-type populations including Anopheles gambiae the vector of human malaria. Here we show that I-SceI and I-PpoI homing endonucleases cleave their recognition sites with high efficiency in A. gambiae cells and embryos and we demonstrate HEG-induced homologous and non-homologous repair events in a variety of functional assays. We also propose a gene drive system for mosquitoes that is based on our finding that I-PpoI cuts genomic rDNA located on the X chromosome in A. gambiae, which could be used to selectively incapacitate X-carrying spermatozoa thereby imposing a severe male-biased sex ratio.
The understanding of the molecular mechanisms of sex differentiation in the mosquito Anopheles gambiae could identify important candidate genes for inducing selective male sterility in transgenic lines or for sex-controlled expression of lethal genes. In many insects doublesex (dsx) is the double-switch gene at the bottom of the somatic sex-determination cascade that determines the differentiation of sexually dimorphic traits. We report here on the identification of the dsx homologue in A. gambiae, and on the characterization of its sex-specific transcripts. Agdsx consists of 7 exons distributed over an 85 kb region on chromosome 2R, which are sex-specifically spliced to produce the female and male AgdsxF and AgdsxM transcripts. AgdsxF contains a 795 bp ORF, coding for a protein of 265 amino acids, while AgdsxM comprises a much longer (1866 bp) ORF, coding for a 622 aa protein. Differences in the exon/intron organization suggest that Agdsx sex-specific splicing results from a different mechanism from Drosophila melanogaster dsx. These findings represent an important step towards the understanding of sex differentiation in Anopheles and will facilitate the use of gene transfer technologies to manipulate sex ratios for vector control programs based on the Sterile Insect Technique.
Doublesex; Anopheles gambiae; sex determination; sex-specific transcripts
Heritable RNA interference (RNAi), triggered from stably expressed transgenes with an inverted repeat (IR) configuration, is an important tool for reverse genetic studies. Here we report on the development of stable RNAi in Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes, the major vector of human malaria in Asia. Trans genic mosquitoes stably expressing a RNAi transgene, designed to produce intron-spliced double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) targeting the green fluorescent protein EGFP gene, were crossed to an EGFP-expressing target line. EGFP expression was dramatically reduced at both the protein and RNA levels. The levels of gene silencing depended upon the RNAi gene copy number and its site of integration. These results demonstrate that specific RNAi-mediated knockdown of gene function can be achieved with high efficiency in Anopheles. This will be invaluable to systematically unravel the function of Anopheles genes determining the vectorial capacity of the malaria parasite.
Wolbachia are maternally transmitted intracellular bacteria that invade insect populations by manipulating their reproduction and immunity and thus limiting the spread of numerous human pathogens. Experimental Wolbachia infections can reduce Plasmodium numbers in Anopheles mosquitoes in the laboratory, however, natural Wolbachia infections in field anophelines have never been reported. Here we show evidence of Wolbachia infections in Anopheles gambiae in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene identified Wolbachia sequences in both female and male germlines across two seasons, and determined that these sequences are vertically transmitted from mother to offspring. Whole-genome sequencing of positive samples suggests that the genetic material identified in An. gambiae belongs to a novel Wolbachia strain, related to but distinct from strains infecting other arthropods. The evidence of Wolbachia infections in natural Anopheles populations promotes further investigations on the possible use of natural Wolbachia–Anopheles associations to limit malaria transmission.
Wolbachia bacteria live within the cells of many insect species, manipulating their hosts’ reproduction and immune responses. Here, the authors show that these microbes also infect wild populations of malaria-spreading Anopheles mosquitoes, supporting a potential use of Wolbachia to limit malaria transmission.