Bacteria called Wolbachia appear to be naturally reducing the spread of malaria, suggesting that the microbes could potentially be used as a tool to tamp down the disease, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previous studies have shown that Wolbachia can interfere with other diseases carried by mosquitoes as well, such as Zika, dengue, and yellow fever.

In the study, led by molecular entomologist Flaminia Catteruccia of Harvard Chan School, researchers examined Anopheles female mosquitoes—which carry and transmit African malaria—collected from homes in Burkina Faso. They screened 221 mosquitos for both the malaria parasite and for Wolbachia and found malaria in 12 of the insects and Wolbachia in 116 of them. Only one of the Wolbachia-infected insects also tested positive for malaria, suggesting that the bacteria is somehow preventing malaria parasites from establishing themselves when Wolbachia is present.

Wolbachia appears to be acting as a natural malaria control agent,” said Catteruccia, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases, in a May 31 article in Smithsonian magazine. “The true extent of this effect is still unknown, as we only tested a small proportion of mosquitoes. It’s still early days, but it’s a promising new tool that may provide an important contribution to our fight for malaria eradication.”

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