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Novel Biology Collaboration May Lead to Cognitive Insights, Cures and Better Bug Spray

November 20, 2012
Mosquito graphic sourced by Ilona Idlis

Mosquitoes can learn new patterns of behavior within their lifetimes. Sometimes that means changing the type of animal they prey on.

Jay Parrish and Jeff Riffell are in the business of misleading mosquitos. The UW Biology professors have spent over a year and a half re-wiring insect brains to discern the olfactory prowess of our least favorite bloodsuckers. Why, you ask?

“Chemical communication is the oldest sensory system and underlies nearly every critical ecological and evolutionary interaction,” Riffell explains.

In simpler terms, mosquitos smell their prey. And there’s something about human scent that makes Homosapien blood particularly delectable. One of the many goals of Parrish and Riffell’s research is identifying the offending chemical. Since there are about 300 chemicals in our body odor, narrowing the pool to a singular insect appetizer is difficult, but the discovery would mean huge advances for disease control and… well, camping.

Once determined, Parrish envisions using the irresistible odor to set up scent traps at key geographic locations and testing the captured mosquitos for carried disease vectors, like the West Nile Virus. It would be an aromatic early detection system. On the consumer side of things, products targeting the attractive smell alone would allow outdoor enthusiasts to mask it from mosquitos without slathering plastic-melting DEET on their skin.

Life Cycle graphic sourced by Ilona Idlis

Parrish and Riffell largely work with mosquitoes in their larvae stage.

Such practical applications for the Biology Department’s research will come about in the not so distant future, but in the meantime Parrish and Riffell are consumed by the daily grind of mosquito gene mutation. Alongside their mixed team of graduate and undergraduate students, the professors shut off individual odor receptors by changing the electro-chemical composition of the insects’ neurons. Then, they sit back and observe the fall-out.  It only takes small environmental changes in light and temperature to impede the firing of an insect neuron, but the tampered receptor alters the mosquitoes’ behavior quite drastically. Specimen can become lethargic and disoriented, thrown by their inability to naturally track a blood reward.

But pranking the mosquitoes’ noses is only half the story. Parrish and Riffell also examine how the insects’ altered processing of sensory information impacts their memory formation. What they’ve discovered is much bigger than better bug repellant. The added neurological impediments force the insects to recode their behavior—meaning that once impaired, mosquitoes simply find new ways to track their hosts or change their meal preferences altogether. In other words, they learn.

Yes. You heard that right. Those insufferable nuisances buzzing around the campfire aren’t just driven by instinct. They can adapt new feeding techniques within a single life cycle. But as terrifying as the idea of improvisational bloodsucking is, Parrish and Riffell insist these neurological connections are a good sign. They show that parallels can be drawn between the cognitive processes of insects and humans, illuminating the finer workings both.

“We’re reverse engineers – we take systems apart to figure out how they’re working,” Riffell said. By deciphering the intricacies of simpler organisms, the scientists hope to shed some light on the mutations of genes shared by species big and small. Doing so can ultimately help the treatment of cognitive diseases like Fragile X Syndrome and Alzheimer’s.

Such a lucrative collaboration wouldn’t have been possible without the Biology Department’s interdisciplinary approach to research. Before coming to the UW, Parrish and Riffell ran in different scientific circles. The former specialized in cellular molecular biology, the latter in marine biology and animal behavior.

“We had gone to the same conferences, but just passed by each other,” Parrish recalled. Their orbits finally collided when the two joined Husky faculty. Bonding over their previous work with fruit flies, Parrish and Riffell embarked on this novel insect experiment.

Toby Bradshaw, chair of the department, strives to make these instances of “unexpected synergy”—like the Parrish/Riffell partnership—a UW standard.

“Real advances happen across the boundaries of biology, not in isolated specialties,” Bradshaw said. “It takes the right faculty and it takes the right shared space.”

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