Fungus as a Biological Control for an Important Vector of Livestock Disease

Culicoides Culicoides biting midges are widely distributed throughout the world and are vectors of internationally important livestock viruses, including bluetongue virus (BTV), African horse sickness virus (AHSV), Akabane virus and Epizootic haemorrhagic disease virus (EHDV). Bluetongue disease (BT) has gained considerable notoriety in recent years because of an unprecedented globalisation and climate change-mediated expansion of its range in Europe, resulting in BTV reaching areas with no historical record of the disease. The economic impact of outbreaks of BTV in these areas has been considerable as a result of both indirect costs (e.g. the restrictions placed on movement of infected ruminants) and direct losses from disease in both sheep and cattle. In addition, whilst vaccination campaigns across northern Europe eventually controlled outbreaks in this region,  it took approximately eighteen months from the initial incursion in 2006 to the deployment of vaccine in the field. During this lag period, attempts to control the spread of BTV were limited to the restriction of animal movement and the application of methods to control Culicoides midges (primarily through the use of pour-on pyrethroid insecticides to vulnerable stocks).

BTV is an arbovirus and therefore depends almost entirely on the occurrence of farm-associated populations of competent Culicoides biting midges for transmission to its ruminant hosts. As a period of extrinsic replication is required within these vectors, control measures directed at adults have the potential to reduce the spread of midge-transmitted diseases through shortening or interrupting their lifespan. Indeed, epidemiological transmission models of vector-borne diseases show that the adult lifespan is the single most important factor affecting risk of transmission. At present, the majority of approaches to control populations of biting midges are based upon the application of insecticides (primarily synthetic pyrethroids) which in northern Europe are most commonly applied to livestock, although systematic testing of compounds to date has demonstrated equivocal results. Wide scale larvicidal or adulticidal use of these compounds against Culicoides has not been considered sustainable because of the paucity of knowledge surrounding larval habitats and adult resting places, combined with increasing restrictions within the EU on untargeted use of pyrethroid insecticides. An alternative insecticide, Ivermectin, is effective in killing Culicoides species when applied intradermally or subcutaneously and also toxic to midge larvae when excreted in faeces (a potential breeding site) but has also been shown to be harmful to beneficial insects such as dung beetles. Farmers are therefore caught between the need to control populations of biting midges and the diminishing number of chemical insecticides as they are withdrawn because of their perceived risk to humans and the environment.

Entomopathogenic Fungus as a Biological Control for an Important Vector of Livestock Disease: The Culicoides Biting Midge. 2011 PLoS ONE 6(1): e16108. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016108
The recent outbreak of bluetongue virus in northern Europe has led to an urgent need to identify control measures for the Culicoides (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae) biting midges that transmit it. Following successful use of the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae against larval stages of biting midge Culicoides nubeculosus Meigen, we investigated the efficacy of this strain and other fungi (Beauveria bassiana, Isaria fumosorosea and Lecanicillium longisporum) as biocontrol agents against adult C. nubeculosus in laboratory and greenhouse studies.
Exposure of midges to ‘dry’ conidia of all fungal isolates caused significant reductions in survival compared to untreated controls. Metarhizium anisopliae strain V275 was the most virulent, causing a significantly decrease in midge survival compared to all other fungal strains tested. The LT50 value for strain V275 was 1.42 days compared to 2.21–3.22 days for the other isolates. The virulence of this strain was then further evaluated by exposing C. nubeculosus to varying doses (108–1011 conidia m−2) using different substrates (horse manure, damp peat, leaf litter) as a resting site. All exposed adults were found to be infected with the strain V275 four days after exposure. A further study exposed C. nubeculosus adults to ‘dry’ conidia and ‘wet’ conidia (conidia suspended in 0.03% aq. Tween 80) of strain V275 applied to damp peat and leaf litter in cages within a greenhouse. ‘Dry’ conidia were more effective than ‘wet’ conidia, causing 100% mortality after 5 days.
This is the first study to demonstrate that entomopathogenic fungi are potential biocontrol agents against adult Culicoides, through the application of ‘dry’ conidia on surfaces (e.g., manure, leaf litter, livestock) where the midges tend to rest. Subsequent conidial transmission between males and females may cause an increased level of fungi-induced mortality in midges thus reducing the incidence of disease.

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