Dr Emilie Pondeville, Research Associate at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, works with one of the world’s most renowned tropical insects – the mosquito. To mark World Mosquito Day on 20 August, she describes what it’s like to work in an insectary and explains the importance of research in mosquitoes.
Like many people, I don’t really like insects. But mosquitoes are different.
I work with Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, known for transmitting diseases such as Zika, chikungunya and dengue fever. Not every species needs a blood meal to reproduce. But the ones we rear are anautogenous, meaning they must feed to mature their eggs.
Entomologist Musa Jawara has worked at MRC Unit, The Gambia for three decades, investigating mosquito behaviour, malaria transmission, and control methods, including pioneering work in transmission-blocking vaccines and the development of insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) for malaria prevention. He showed Isabel Baker around his work space at Wali Kunda, on the banks of the River Gambia, where he catches, breeds and dissects mosquitoes, and tries not to catch malaria in the process.
Musa Jawara at the Wali Kunda field site
To study and understand malaria epidemiology and control you must look at the parasite, the host and the vector. I focus on the vector ― the mosquito ― and try to understand how to prevent it from transmitting malaria by learning about its behaviour.
To study mosquitoes, we have to catch them first! One way is using this simple device called an aspirator (or pooter) ― a glass or plastic pipe with a rubber tube attached at one end and a filter to block the passage of mosquitoes into the tube. You point the tube towards the mosquito and suck gently to avoid crushing the insect.
Today is World Mosquito Day, marking the 1897 discovery by the British doctor, researcher and military officer Sir Ronald Ross that the female Anopheles mosquito spreads malaria. Here our senior press officer Claire Hastings looks at what makes this ‘little fly’ one of the most dangerous organisms that has ever lived.
A bellyful of blood (Image credit: Wellcome Library, London)
No one likes mosquitoes. They bite. They’re difficult to swat. To make matters worse, they inevitably appear on the rare pleasant days when we’re trying to enjoy the Great British Summer Time. Luckily, mild to moderate irritation is the worst outcome we can expect from a mosquito bite in the UK. But in the tropics a single mosquito bite can result in anything from an itchy ankle or mild fever to organ failure and death.
Tools of the trade
Despite their blood-sucking reputation, mosquitoes primarily feed on nectar from plants. Only the female mosquito needs additional protein in her diet to allow her eggs to develop; and the blood of animals is her favourite source.
Without this blood lust, female mosquitoes wouldn’t need to bite. Over the years she has evolved a few tricks that make her rather good at drinking our blood. Stealth is key ― if it hurt then we’d know about it, and the mosquito wouldn’t have time to find the perfect place to drink. Read more