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"The mosquito can be infected by malaria, but it can't pass it onto humans," Kang said. The mutated fungus then eats away at the mosquito from the inside, killing the insect after a couple of weeks. That's long enough for the mosquito to reproduce, which should lessen its incentive to evolve resistance to it.
The same fungus -- minus the genetic modifications -- is already produced in industrial quantities to squash locust outbreaks in Australia. The fungus is naturally lethal to locusts, so no genetic modification is needed.
If Kang and colleagues can get enough funding, they hope to test the mutant fungus in malaria-endemic countries like Burkina Faso, Kenya or Tanzania.
Other experts doubted whether the laboratory experiment could be replicated in the wild. "It's a neat scientific idea, but there are questions about (the mutated fungus's) stability and formulation," said Janet Hemingway, director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. She said the mutant fungus would have to survive being shipped to Africa and then be viable for another three to six months in stifling heat once it's sprayed onto walls or bednets.
One group that campaigns against genetically modified organisms warned the mutant fungus could skew behaviors of other wildlife.
"The release of any genetically modified organism into the environment runs the risk that it may have wider impacts than just its target," said Pete Riley, campaign director of GM Freeze, a U.K.-based advocacy group. He said the modified fungus could have unintended consequences which might be impossible to reverse. "Nature has a pretty cunning way of getting around everything we throw at it," he said.
Kang acknowledged that simply having a new mutant fungus would not stop malaria. "We still need better drugs and other interventions," he said. "But malaria kills about a million people every year so we have to try whatever may work."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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