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NMSU Molecular Vector Physiology Lab awarded $1.6 million NIH grant

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New Mexico State University Biology Professor Immo Hansen calls it “the most dangerous animal in the world.” Not based on its size, but based on its deadly cargo. Hansen studies mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects that spread diseases worldwide.

A recent $1.69 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help Hansen’s Molecular Vector Physiology Lab continue its research and teaching mission for the next five years.

Biology researchers and graduate students have conducted a wide variety of projects in Hansen’s lab over the last 12 years. Results range from the discovery of novel cellular nutrient sensor systems to improving ways to sterilize mosquitoes – one study found that fat male mosquitoes are sexier to females so if you sterilize the fat males, they are more likely to mate and reduce the mosquito population. Lisa Drake, a graduate student, discovered through her research in the lab that a popular perfume can actually ward off mosquitoes better than most commercial repellents.

“We have conducted basic and applied research projects resulting in major contributions in the field of molecular and cellular physiology,” Hansen said. “This grant will allow the laboratory team to continue to educate students and perform research to increase our knowledge of the molecular physiology of mosquitos and other blood-sucking arthropod disease vectors.”

Research in Hansen’s lab has the potential to improve the health and lives of people around the globe by laying part of the foundation for new types of “green” strategies to control mosquito populations and the diseases they transmit. For example, more than 200 million people are infected with Malaria each year in sub-Saharan Africa and more than 600,000 people die, many of them children.

“The reproductive physiology of mosquitoes is tightly linked to their ability to transmit disease pathogens due to the fact that mosquitoes need blood for egg production,” Hansen said. “Therefore, a detailed understanding of reproductive processes on a molecular level will help enable us to identify new ways to disrupt the process of disease transmission.”

The lab’s focus is on nutrient-signaling pathways and nutrient transport in the mosquito reproduction model system, regulation of water homeostasis and transport in mosquitoes, olfactory physiology of blood-sucking arthropod disease vectors and development of novel methods of mosquito control.

Four types of mosquitoes are used as research subjects in Hansen’s lab along with bed bugs, kissing bugs and ticks. Hailey Luker, a graduate student and also the lab manager for Hansen’s lab, designed a novel carousel device to implement her research measuring the effectiveness of tick repellents.

“The Molecular Vector Physiology Lab has been an invaluable experience for me and I have grown tremendously as a student, researcher and individual,” Luker said. “Having the opportunity to be in this lab has helped me find my love and appreciation for research and has and will continue to prepare me for my future in science.”

Hansen explained that researchers in his lab are primarily interested in the “molecular mechanisms by which cells and tissues sense nutrients and in response, activate signal transduction pathways which regulate expression and/or deactivation of mosquito genes.”

Understanding the molecular biology underlying mosquito reproduction, Hansen believes will pave the way for the development of new control strategies with the ultimate goal of eradicating mosquito-transmitted diseases.

Mosquitoes carry some of the most devastating diseases known to man. While pesticides and other mitigation actions have made progress, new problems continue to surface, requiring new solutions to address emerging infectious diseases.

“We also have multiple ongoing successful collaborations with other groups in physiology, entomology, vector biology, physics, computer science and electrical engineering,” Hansen said.

Learn more about NMSU’s Molecular Vector Physiology Lab.