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Update on Malaria Research

Researchers in the college continue to investigate ways to deal with mosquitoes and malaria to stride towards eliminating the disease.

SEM mosquito image

In early 2011, when we brought you a feature story in Penn State Ag Science magazine about malaria research, a brand-new $3 million insectary was just being completed. Now it’s up and running, with world-class researchers making strides toward eliminating the disease. 

Recently at the insectary, part of postdoctoral scholar Lauren Cator’s job was to stand behind a net at the end of a corridor and wait for a mosquito to fly toward her. Using herself as bait, she’d measure how fast the mosquito got to her and how determined it was to feed. Cator was testing the theory that the malaria parasite changes a mosquito’s behavior, making it less likely to feed when it is not yet infectious and more inclined to feed when it is infectious.

 In case you're wondering, Cator wasn’t putting herself in danger of getting malaria: In addition to her net shield, she had the assurance that the mosquitoes had rodent malaria, which doesn’t transmit to humans. Safety is of utmost importance to researchers working with infectious diseases.

“Feeding on a person is dangerous for the mosquito, what with the slapping and all that,” explains Andrew Read, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. Cator and her colleagues wanted to know if the malaria parasite makes the non-infectious mosquito hold off feeding to reduce the chances of being slapped and killed, and causes the infectious mosquito to take more risks. 

“Lauren found that it’s absolutely true,” Read says. “But the other thing she discovered, which is totally startling, is that you get the same effect if you inject dead E. coli bacteria as you do when you inject the malaria parasite. So now it looks like it’s not the malaria parasite that’s in charge here—it’s the mosquito responding to any infection. The mosquito itself is altering its behavior to try to mitigate the effects of infection.” 

This is just one example of the kind of research made possible by the insectary, which is one of the best in the country. Environmental chambers and incubators make it possible to do complex experiments involving temperature variations. Researchers can run insecticide trials, behavior trials, and other experiments that weren’t possible before. 

The facility has also attracted top-notch faculty and grants totaling about $8 million. One new $1.2 million grant is targeted toward developing new mosquito control technologies to the point of field use. College researchers are collaborating with various colleagues and industrial partners in Europe and Tanzania to develop a device that will help control outdoor biting mosquitoes. 

Insectary researchers also received an $800,000 Gates Foundation grant to study malaria in humans instead of mice. “The idea is to get samples of the volatiles coming off people,” Read explains. “The big challenge with the human side of things is the variability among people. It matters if someone has just had a beer or has just eaten curry, for example. The question is whether we can still detect the signature of malaria in these volatiles despite the variability.” 

With the new insectary, “It really is the case that we are limited only by our imaginations and our energy,” Read says. “We have more than enough mosquitoes, we have the space to do this stuff, and it’s amazing what you can do with the right facilities.” 

For more information visit the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. For more information about malaria research, visit the websites of researchers Andrew Read or Matthew Thomas