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To control mosquitoes, researchers tag them with DNA barcodes

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It is not easy to track the activity of mosquitoes and prevent diseases contracted by infected ones, such as West Nile disease, Zika and malaria. A team from Colorado State University has developed synthetic DNA particles that can help scientists research mosquito-borne diseases in a whole new way.

 

The new discovery builds on earlier work by Chris Snow, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and his team. Over the years, they have generated microscopic porous protein crystals that self-assemble from a protein originally found in the bacterium Camplyobacter jejuni . The team then set out to identify several possible applications such as, for example, capturing viruses during wastewater tests. For identification, the researchers thought of inserting non-toxic fluorescent dyes and synthetic DNA in the crystals and they succeeded in their intent without dispersing traces of DNA, even after multiple attempts and exposure to solvents. In 2017, Rebekah Kading, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, heard about Snow’s work and was inspired by the possibility of applying the technology to mosquito tagging . For this they created a joint team called “ Dark Crystal “. They designed, lab-tested, and field-evaluated a new class of marker particles, in which short synthetic DNA oligonucleotides, the DNA barcodes, they are absorbed and protected inside porous and cross-linked protein micro-crystals. The researchers then thought of creating a biomass containing the crystals and having them ingested by the mosquitoes in the larval stage: in this way the mosquitoes label themselves.

As mosquitoes grow, the DNA remains intact in their guts and creates a readable code that can be translated in the laboratory through methods such as real-time PCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction). This is the feature that distinguishes this method from conventional ones, as it can track movement throughout the insect’s life.

“The goal is to have a map of the mosquito landscape and the ability to identify where they breed. I think this would add another dimension of knowledge to real-time mosquito surveillance and control operations,” Kading explains.

 

In 2020 and 2021, the team put the system to the test, monitoring for mosquitoes in the eastern Fort Collins area. Kading and her team repeated the work the following summer in other areas and are now studying their results.

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Going forward, Kading and Snow’s research team intends to continue the collaboration. The researcher would also like to conduct experiments in places where mosquito-borne diseases are more common, such as areas with tropical climates.

  • Mosquito tagging using DNA-barcoded nanoporous protein microcrystals. (academic.oup.com)
 

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