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Mosquitoes are adept at adaptation. Va. Tech scientists want to know how they do it.

A female Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito on the skin of a human host. The mosquito’s...
A female Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito on the skin of a human host. The mosquito’s red-colored abdomen is filling with blood. C. quinquefasciatus is among the mosquitoes responsible for spreading the arboviral encephalitis, West Nile virus.(James Gathany/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 11:16 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 27, 2021 at 5:26 AM EDT
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Wherever you go in Virginia in the summertime, there they are.

Mosquitoes are the nearly constant companion of every Virginian from late spring into the fall, breeding in pools of water and lying in wait for any chance at human blood. And some researchers say they may soon become even more omnipresent as climate change gives rise to the warmer, wetter conditions in which many mosquito species thrive.

“There’s already a dramatic impact of mosquitoes on human populations, but it’s going to increase,” said Virginia Tech biologist Clément Vinauger. “It can only increase because of climate change.”

But how mosquitoes are managing to so smoothly adapt to changing conditions, whether environmental or stemming from human efforts at controlling the insect, remains hazy.

“We have very good examples in the U.S. of several species of mosquitoes that are invasive and are basically efficient at invading because they can adapt pretty well to changing temperature,” said biologist Chloé Lahondère. “What we are trying to do in the lab is to try to understand how do they adapt so well?”

Over the next five years, Vinauger, Lahondère and another colleague in Virginia Tech’s Department of Biochemistry, Jake Tu, are aiming to tease out the ways these insects adapt their biological rhythms in response to changes in human behavior.

How they’ll investigate that sounds like something out of science fiction: The team uses a 3-D printer to make a platform that can fit around a captive mosquito’s head as well as electrodes that can be attached to its brain. Then the mosquito is exposed to different stimuli — “kind of like having a mosquito in a flight simulator, if you will,” said Vinauger — while the researchers record the activity of its neurons to pinpoint the exact times and places where the brain is processing the information in the environment.

The research is more than a matter of scientific curiosity, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has put $2.7 million in grant funds behind it. As carriers of diseases such as malaria, dengue and the Zika and West Nile viruses, mosquitoes are sometimes called “the deadliest animal on earth.” For centuries humans have tried countless strategies to get rid of them, from pesticides to electric shocks to drainage improvements.

Mosquitoes, however, have been persistent. Species like Aedes japonicus and Aedes albopictus — the latter more commonly known as the Asian tiger mosquito — that originated in eastern Asia have managed through international trade to establish robust populations in North America, as well as Europe.

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The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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