The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, granted researchers from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health $1.7 million to study mosquito migration patterns using genomics.
The research team — led by campus professor John Marshall in collaboration with Gordana Rašić, a senior research officer at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia — will use computer simulations and genetic techniques to research the migration and mating patterns of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that carries the Zika, chikungunya and dengue viruses. This research will help scientists more effectively control mosquito-borne diseases, Marshall said.
“We’re excited to have funding to see our ideas become reality,” Marshall said. “It’s taken a few years but we finally got funding for our work. We are grateful to the NIH for supporting this research.”
Since meeting at a mosquito conference in French Polynesia three years ago, Marshall and Rašić have been collaborating on the project.
Rašić said in an email that her skills in population genomics and ecology complement Marshall’s in computational biology.
“We ‘clicked’ right away, sharing the same interest in creating and using different tools and approaches to study mosquito populations,” Rašić said in the email. “The collaboration seemed natural and almost inevitable.”
Rašić added that the NIH funding will help the team track “fine-scale” mosquito movements and generate a simulation framework with which to model trials of new mosquito control methods for four years.
In the past, researchers have attempted to track mosquito behavior through the “mark release recapture” method, according to Marshall. In this method, mosquitoes are marked with fluorescent dust and, once recaptured, can be analyzed to estimate distance traveled and population size.
“The issues with those methods is that the process of observation changes what you’re observing,” Marshall said.
Marshall and Rašić’s research aims to use landscape genomics, in which researchers analyze DNA to determine how closely related mosquitoes are, instead of the “mark release recapture” method, according to Marshall. With this DNA information, the researchers can track the distances mosquitoes have traveled in a given generation.
Marshall and Rašić’s initial proposal to NIH was rejected in 2018, but the team received constructive feedback that helped formulate its 2020 proposal, according to Rašić.
“We believe our proposed project has a strong potential to fill some of the key gaps in the ability to design safer and more efficient mosquito control strategies,” Rašić said in the email. “We were thrilled that the NIH felt the same way.”