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UCL-led study awarded prestigious HFSP Research Grant

23 April 2021

The grant will go towards funding an international study exploring mosquito hearing and acoustic communication, which could lead to improved methods of mosquito control in an attempt to slow the spread of mosquito-borne disease.

three mosquitos

UCL researchers accepted the Human Frontier Science Program Awards (HFSP) Research Grant together with partners from Japan, Taiwan and the US working on the interdisciplinary project which integrates experimental and conceptual components from multiple fields.

According to the researchers, mosquito control is a worldwide problem, and with climate change the reach of mosquitos carrying certain illnesses is expanding. Such illnesses include potentially life-threatening diseases like malaria, dengue, yellow fever, zika virus, and chikungunya, among others.

Lead researcher Dr Joerg Albert from the UCL Ear Institute, said: “The fact is that mosquito-borne disease will increase substantially over the next 50 years (propelled by climate change) and we have to start understanding mosquito biology better than we do. This requires a global multi-disciplinary effort and the HFSP project is just one example for this.”

The project will focus on ‘male’ mosquitos and how mosquito hearing works  to understand how hearing (or possibly acoustic communication) contributes to reproduction in mosquito populations in the wild which could inform better methods of mosquito control.

Focusing on male mosquitoes may seem counterintuitive because disease is only spread by females - females bite, males don’t. But male mosquitoes – and specifically their sense of hearing – are a crucial element of mosquito reproduction. The researchers will design specific lures and tests that will mostly attract males. By using lures to attract males, researchers not only hope to identify the specific sounds that mosquitoes listen out for but also to finally understand their hearing mechanisms.

This understanding could directly inform novel mosquito control methods, which might disrupt the sound communication between males and females and therefore slow down population growth.

Dr Albert said: “Mosquitoes use their sense of hearing to identify mating partners. Males find females by the sounds of the females’ flight tones. So understanding their sense of hearing – and the sensory ecology of hearing in mosquitoes will enable us to catch and monitor mosquitoes during large release programmes of mosquito mutants (e.g. gene drive based approaches) which will be used to collapse local mosquito populations and thus reduce disease transmission, or to suggest new genetic modifications (e.g. some that cause hearing impairments in males) and which thus disrupt mosquito reproduction.

“Mosquitoes are vectors for numerous diseases. By targeting the vectors our approach would benefit all related control programmes."

The research team brings together experts from computational and experimental neuroscience, biophysics, molecular biology, genetics and behavioural ecology. As it integrates experimental and conceptual components from multiple fields; it requires an international effort not only because mosquito control is a worldwide and regionally diverse problem, but also because the tools required to succeed are spread across continents and academic disciplines.

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