Newswise — BALTIMORE, July 10, 2023 – Millions of people in tropical regions owe their lives to mosquito bed nets, which keep them safe from the insects that spread malaria. These nets primarily work as a physical barrier, but modern nets also come with insecticidal compounds embedded into the fibers that keep mosquito populations down.

In recent years, however, insecticide-resistant mosquitoes have curtailed the effectiveness of these bed nets, leading to a rise in malaria cases across the globe.

During the American Crystallographic Association's 73rd annual meeting, which will be held July 7-11 at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, Bart Kahr, of New York University, will discuss the use of crystallography to design more effective insecticides for bed nets. He will give his talk Monday, July 10, at 4:20 p.m. Eastern in room Waterview AB.

Insecticidal compounds are dissolved into the bulk of the net fibers, and over time, they rise to the surface and solidify into crystals. But even for the same insecticide, the structures of the resulting crystals vary depending on time and temperature. This can make all the difference when it comes to killing insecticide-resistant mosquitoes.

“We have recently uncovered, with researchers at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the Innovative Vector Control Consortium, that heating triggers a solid-state transformation that allows crystals of a common insecticide to overcome the most resistant Anopheles mosquitoes from West Africa,” said Kahr.

Designing better insecticides means understanding how these crystals form and change under different conditions. X-ray analysis works for large, fully formed crystals, but Kahr’s team and researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences have turned to a new technique, electron diffraction. This advanced imaging technology allows them to study insecticide crystals from the moment they start to form.

“Electron diffraction for crystal structure analysis has developed in parallel with the increasing need for long-lasting insecticidal bed nets in a new attempt to eradicate malaria,” said Kahr. “It turns out that this new technology is perfectly suited to bed net crystallography because crystals that grow in threads are by necessity very small.”

Using this new method, Kahr and his colleagues were able to follow the growth of insecticide crystals from start to finish. Their work will be used to guide the development of better insecticide compounds and manufacturing processes, leading to more effective bed nets and saving countless lives.


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The American Crystallographic Association, Inc. is a nonprofit, scientific organization of more than 1,000 members in more than 35 countries. The ACA was founded in 1949 through a merger of the American Society for X-Ray and Electron Diffraction (ASXRED) and the Crystallographic Society of America (CSA). The objective of the ACA is to promote interactions among scientists who study the structure of matter at atomic (or near atomic) resolution. These interactions will advance experimental and computational aspects of crystallography and diffraction. Understanding the nature of the forces that both control and result from the molecular and atomic arrangements in matter will help shed light on chemical interactions in nature.