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The behavioural ecology of mosquitoes

Mosquito transmitted pathogens have an enormous impact of human health. A substantial amount of funding and resources are being spent to control the transmission of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. In many ways this investment is paying off. Innovative and exciting new strategies and technologies have been developed to help combat these plagues. Improving our knowledge of mosquito behaviour and ecology will help us effectively control disease. Our research aims to improve understanding of mosquito behaviour and how behaviour mediates intra- and interspecific interactions in the dynamic world that they live in.

What makes a "sexy" male mosquito?

Most medically important mosquitoes mate in aerial swarms. The aggregations are primarily composed of males with fewer numbers of female entering and mating. The entire mating event occurs in flight and in a matter of seconds. Despite the importance of mating in mosquito biology and the many control tools targeting reproductive biology, we understand relatively little about what is going on in these swarms. Several projects in the lab focus on these aggregations and what determines male mating success. These projects use tools ranging from slow motion videography (See more of Andy's awesome videos here) to whole genome sequencing to understand ecological and evolutionary determinants of these fascinating behaviours.

How do environment and infection shape behaviour, life history, and transmission?

Mosquitoes are tiny, ecothermic, animals and this means that their life history and behavioural traits are extremely sensitive to the environment. Changes to these traits can drive transmission dynamics both directly by altering mosquito feeding patterns and susceptibility and also by altering mosquito abundance. For example, projects have invested how changes in micro-climatic conditions in Malaysian Borneo will impact transmission risk, how nutritional gradients can alter the effect of temperature on fitness, and how the presence of larval predators alters adult traits like body size.

Water tank, thatched home, brick home, large apartment complex in Chennai, India.

Trait-Based Approach for VBDs

For most mosquito-borne diseases, pathogens must undergo an obligate period of development inside of the mosquito. This period is very dangerous for the pathogen. The risk comes from the fact that the pathogen's fate is tied to mosquito survival and mosquitoes experience high daily mortality. This means that of the small proportion of mosquitoes take up a pathogen an even smaller proportion live long enough to successfully transmit. So a very small proportion (<10% in many places) of the mosquito population is responsible for transmission. There is work across many systems indicating that infected mosquitoes behave differently than uninfected mosquitoes. We are interested in characterizing these changes in behaviour, understanding the evolutionary and mechanistic forces driving those changes, and incorporating them into our understanding of transmission and control.  

Sporozoites bursting from malaria oocysts in in the midgut of mosquito,

In order to understand how variation the kinds of life history and behavioural traits we measure alters transmission dynamics and control we often use modelling tools. However, most current modelling frameworks are not designed to incorporate individual variation in traits. Lauren and colleagues founded the the Vector Behavior in Transmission Ecology Research Coordination Network (VectorBiTE RCN)  to increase interaction between research in diverse fields studying vector-borne disease transmission, to encourage the collection and consolidation of key data, and to encourage development of analytical tools to better understand the role of vector behavior in transmission. This includes working with data generators and users, empirically focused and theory focused, and junior and senior researchers both within and outside of academia. Through the collaboration we have launched a data platform VectorByte which is working to consolidate vector trait and population dynamics data and develop tools for using these data to improve VBD modelling and forecasting. To learn more visit the VectorBiTE (RCN) and VectorByte (data).

The most recent manifestation of the passion to combine data with modelling to improve prediction and control of VBDs is the Defra-UKRI One Health VBD Hub project. Responses to vector-borne diseases (VBDs) require a One Health approach that integrates data on pathogens, animals, and humans with environmental data. In the next 20 years the UK is predicted to experience an increased threat from both endemic and invasive VBDs driven by changes in climate, land use, and biodiversity. This project is the product of a consultation with the larger VBD community about the resources required to enhance the links between data collection, analysis, and policy making. The Defra-UKRI One Health VBD Hub will provide infrastructure to enhance access and sharing of data on pathogens, vectors, and hosts, tools for linking these data to environmental data for forecasting applications, and visualisations and summaries to inform policy. Alongside these tools the project will deliver virtual and in-person training and networking opportunities for the community. This project builds on existing international investments in VBD repositories to deliver and maintain critical capacity and networks to support responses to VBD threats. The Hub will form the basis for the research community to develop future surveillance, advanced analytics, modelling, and simulation to support evidence-based decision making. We are excited to tackle this challenge with collaborators from ICL, The Pirbright Institute, The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, The University of Liverpool, and The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. 

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