GCC undergraduate grant awardees team-up to take down invasive mosquitos

December 7, 2021

Mosquitoes are responsible for the loss of thousands of lives each year as carriers of deadly pathogens such as malaria, dengue virus, and West Nile virus. Because treatments and vaccines remain unavailable for many of mosquito-vectored diseases, especially in less developed nations, mosquito control is one of the main strategies to limit populations and consequently pathogen transmission. Methods of mosquito control can include removing breeding habitats, introducing predators, or use of insecticides. Unfortunately, many of these methods can have negative impacts on non-target species that are ecologically important and beneficial to society. For example, insecticides used in mosquito control can also kill dragonflies who are themselves predators of mosquitos. In order to address this wicked problem, the World Health Organization has urged for the development of novel control strategies that are cost-effective, sustainable, and environmentally friendly.

The lab of GCC Affiliate Dr. Chloé Lahondère focuses on studying insects that vector pathogens including multiple mosquito species that are in need of better control strategies. This is of particular importance in the face of climate change. Global changes in weather patterns and increased extreme weather events can facilitate mosquito species invading new areas along with the diseases they may carry. In order to tackle this growing issue, Lahondère enlisted the efforts of two previous recipients of the GCC Undergraduate Research Grant– Lauren Fryzlewicz and Ashlynn VanWinkle. Fryzlewicz, a 2020 award recipient, and VanWinkle, a 2021 award recipient, teamed up to study the invasive mosquito species Aedes j. japonicus, a potential vector of West Nile virus. Aedes j. japonicus was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, and now ranges from the American Midwest to the eastern seaboard.

“With warming climates,” VanWinkle said, “the active range for mosquitoes is growing, and we hypothesize that drier climates will encourage more mosquito activity.”  Using the GCC grant funds, Fryzlewicz and VanWinkle addressed this problem by creating and testing novel attractive toxic sugar baits (ATSBs) for mosquito control. ATSBs are composed of three elements: an attractive odor to draw mosquitos into a container, a sugar solution, and a toxic chemical. Containers can be fashioned out of old plastic bottles making them an economic and sustainable choice with readily available resources.

While ATSBs have been shown to be successful methods of control in other mosquito species, they have yet to be tested in Aedes j. japonicus. To assess this, boric acid, which is lethal to mosquitoes but low in toxicity to most fish, birds, and honey bees, was mixed with various fruit solutions to use in feeding assays. Fryzlewicz and VanWinkle found that, regardless of the fruit used, mosquitoes who fed on solutions containing boric acid died within 48 hours, proving the efficiency of ATSBs in this invasive species.

Lauren working in the lab.
Ashlynn at this year's graduation ceremony.

A recently published Journal of Medical Entomology article showcases their work and is an important milestone for both Fryzlewicz and VanWinkle. “This project gave me so much experience with the process of research, and it’s ultimately what influenced me to pursue my master’s degree at Virginia Tech” VanWinkle said. “This is the first paper I’ve been a part of so it’s a huge milestone to see it published!” But this isn’t only an important triumph for the Lahondère Lab. Developing an effective mosquito trap has global benefits as Aedes j. japonicus has become an invasive species in Europe as well. “The impact of this paper is that it is providing an inexpensive option to trap insects” remarked Fryzlewicz. “Many traps are very expensive and complicated to use, while this bait is easily accessible and very easy to produce.”

After completing her MS in Biochemistry this year, Fryzlewicz is now a staff Scientist in the Biomarker and Flow Cytometry Department at PPD Bioanalytical Lab in Richmond, Virginia. “It is a very different type of science than what I was doing in my Masters,” she said.  “But the multi-disciplinary research approach of Dr. Lahondère really taught me how to learn and shaped me into a better scientist. She helped me see a new side of Biochemistry.”

As for the future of the project, the next steps will be optimizing the ATSB and testing it in local areas. Carrying on the legacies of Fryzlewicz and VanWinkle, Helen Oker was recently awarded a 2021-2022 GCC Undergraduate Research Grant to do just that. “I am really grateful to the GCC for supporting undergraduate research and for supporting this project in particular,” Lahondère remarked. Inspired by her work in the Lahondère lab, VanWinkle started her MS in the Biochemistry program this semester, and is currently rotating in different labs to get more experience before deciding on which lab to join for her thesis.

The Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, with support from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, is proud to sponsor undergraduate students and their research projects that align with our mission for advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches to address critical global changes impacting the environment and society. Supported projects address basic and/or applied aspects of global change science, engineering, social sciences, and the humanities and are sponsored by a GCC Faculty mentor.

Read more about the GCC Undergraduate Research Grant program here.

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