Mosquitos are evolving to beat insecticides – except in Australia

July 17, 2017 by Ary Hoffmann, Nancy Margaret Endersby-Harshman And Scott Ritchie, The Conversation
Mosquitoes are the main vectors for dengue and zika. Insecticides are our best weapon against them. Credit: Anja Jonsson/Flickr

Chemical pesticides have been used for many years to control insect populations and remain the most important method of managing diseases carried by pests, including mosquitoes. However, insects have fought back by evolving resistance to many pesticides. There are now thousands of instances of evolved resistance, which make some chemical classes completely ineffective.

The Aedes mosquito, largely responsible for the spread of viruses like dengue and Zika, has globally developed resistance to commonly used chemicals, including pyrethroids. Pyrethroids are the most used insecticides in the world, which includes the control of dengue outbreaks and quarantine breaches at air and sea ports.

In Asia and the Americas, pyrethroid in Aedes is now widespread. In Australia, our mosquitoes have not developed these defences and pyrethroids are still very effective.

The difference lies in our stringent and careful protocols for chemical use. As the global community fights zika and other mosquito-borne diseases, there are lessons to be learned from Australia's success.

Developing resistance

Mosquitoes usually become resistant to pyrethroids through the mutation of a sodium channel gene that controls the movement of ions across cell membranes. Mutations in a single gene are enough to make mosquitoes almost completely resistant to the level of pyrethroids used in insecticides.

The first arises in a by chance, and are rare. However, they rapidly spread as resistant females breed. The more times a mosquito population is exposed to the same chemical, the more the natural selection process favours their impervious offspring.

Eventually, when many individuals in a population carry the resistance mutation, the chemical becomes ineffective. This can happen where insecticide "fogging" is common practice. Overseas, fogging is sometimes undertaken across entire neighbourhoods, several times a month, despite concerns about its effectiveness as well as its environmental and health impacts.

Once resistance develops, it can spread to non-resistant mosquito populations in other areas. Pest species, including mosquitoes, are often highly mobile because they fly or are carried passively (in vehicles, ships and planes) at any stage of their life cycle. Their mobility means mutations spread quickly, crossing borders and possibly seas.

We can still control Australian mosquitoes

Despite this, Australian populations of Aedes mosquitoes remain susceptible to pyrethroids. Aedes aegypti (the yellow fever mosquito) is the main disease-carrying mosquito in Australia. Its population is restricted to urban areas of northern Queensland, where dengue can occur.

Recent research found that all Australian populations of this species are still vulnerable to pyrethroids. None of the hundreds of mosquitoes tested had any mutations in the sodium channel gene, despite the high incidence of such mutations in mosquito populations of South-East Asia.

We believe these mosquitoes remain vulnerable to pyrethroids because in Australia pressure to select for resistance has been low.

Australia does not carry out routine fogging. If dengue is detected in an area, pyrethoids are used in highly regimented and limited fashion. Spraying is restricted to the insides of premises within selected house blocks, and then only for a short period.

Importantly, water-filled artificial containers, which can serve as a habitat for larvae, are treated with insect growth regulators, which do not select for the pyrethroid resistance mutations.

Exporting resistance

With chemical resistance growing around the world, it is more urgent than ever that we co-ordinate action to control and reduce risk of resistance. Unfortunately, no global guidelines exist to minimise the evolution of resistance in mosquitoes.

Adopting pesticide resistance management strategies has proven to be effective against other pests – for example, the corn earworm (Helicoverpa armigera). Guidelines include rotating different class of pesticides to deny pests the chance to develop resistance, and investing in non-chemical options such as natural predators of target pests.

Resistance management strategies are particularly critical for new pesticides that have different modes of attack, such as preventing juvenile insects from moulting, or attacking various receptors.

To prolong the effectiveness of pesticides, we must develop these strategies before resistance begins to develop. North Queensland may be an example to the rest of the world on the best path forward.

Explore further: First molecular diagnostics for insecticide resistance in sandflies

Related Stories

First molecular diagnostics for insecticide resistance in sandflies

May 5, 2017
A study led by LSTM identifies a potent molecular mechanism for insecticide resistance in the world's most medically-important sandfly species and develops DNA-diagnostics for monitoring future impact on visceral leishmaniasis ...

Scaled-up malaria control efforts breed insecticide resistance in mosquitoes

February 2, 2017
A genetic analysis of mosquito populations in Africa shows that recent successes in controlling malaria through treated bednets has led to widespread insecticide resistance in mosquitoes, according to a study led by Charles ...

Mutant mosquitos make insecticide-resistance monitoring key to controlling Zika

June 19, 2017
One of the most common insecticides used in the battle against the Aedes aegypti mosquito has no measurable impact when applied in communities where the mosquito has built up resistance to it, a study led by Emory University ...

Recommended for you

Gastric acid suppressant lansoprazole may target tuberculosis

November 21, 2017
A cheap and widely used drug, used to treat conditions such as heartburn, gastritis and ulcers, could work against the bacteria that cause tuberculosis (TB), according to new research from UCL and the London School of Hygiene ...

Improving prediction accuracy of Crohn's disease based on repeated fecal sampling

November 21, 2017
Researchers at the University of California San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation (CMI) have found that sampling the gut microbiome over time can provide insights that are not available with a single time point. The ...

Anti-malaria drug shows promise as Zika virus treatment

November 17, 2017
A new collaborative study led by researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) and UC San Diego School of Medicine has found that a medication used to prevent and treat malaria may also be effective ...

Decrease in sunshine, increase in Rickets

November 17, 2017
A University of Toronto student and professor have teamed up to discover that Britain's increasing cloudiness during the summer could be an important reason for the mysterious increase in Rickets among British children over ...

Scientists identify biomarkers that indicate likelihood of survival in infected patients

November 17, 2017
Scientists have identified a set of biomarkers that indicate which patients infected with the Ebola virus are most at risk of dying from the disease.

Research team unlocks secrets of Ebola

November 16, 2017
In a comprehensive and complex molecular study of blood samples from Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, published today (Nov. 16, 2017) in Cell Host and Microbe, a scientific team led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison has ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.