The Vosshall Lab has been carrying out high-risk, high-reward research since 2000. PhD students and postdoctoral fellows carry out their own highly original projects.
Tasting the heat: Investigating the role of thermal cues driving feeding behavior in mosquitoes – Takeshi Morita PhD
Female mosquitoes differ from many other organisms in that they require large blood meals to initiate egg production. Mosquitoes can feed multiple times throughout their lifetime, making them an effective vector for transmission of deadly infectious diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever, and malaria. Mosquitoes use various combinations of host cues during their pursuit for blood meals, including carbon dioxide (CO2), volatile compounds, and heat. Among these cues, heat is a robust inducer for host-seeking and blood-feeding behavior. Although temperatures close to human body temperature attract mosquitoes, the genes, sensory neurons, and behavioral patterns underlying mosquito thermosensation have remained enigmatic. This proposal will lead to identification of novel molecular players and neuronal mechanisms mediating mosquito thermosensation during host-seeking and blood-feeding behaviors, which will shed light on better preventative options for vector-based diseases.
Chemosensory coding of DEET in Aedes aegypti tarsi – Olivia Goldman
An orco mutant female mosquito avoiding DEET-treated skin.
The insect repellent DEET is a synthetic compound, discovered in 1946 by the USDA as part of a large chemical screen. Since its discovery, DEET has become the most broadly used and effective arthropod repellent available, but the details of how DEET works remain elusive. We discovered that, in addition to being able to smell DEET, Aedes aegypti can detect DEET upon contact via their legs (Dennis et al, 2019). Using a combination of imaging techniques, molecular profiling, and genetic manipulation, we are further investigating the molecular mechanisms of DEET contact detection in the mosquito leg.
Regulation of mosquito host-seeking behavior by visceral tissues – Nadav Shai PhD
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes use two distinct feeding programs. While females require a blood meal for egg production, both female and male mosquitoes feed primarily on sugar-rich plant nectar. To procure the necessary nutrients from these distinct food sources, females employ two behaviorally and anatomically distinct feeding programs: blood-feeding and nectar-feeding. Ingested blood is directed to the midgut (the equivalent of the small intestine) for digestion while nectar is initially routed to the crop for storage. The mechanisms by which these parallel feeding pathways sense the meal and direct it to a specific ingestive organ are unknown. Using a combination of tissue-specific expression patterns, Microscopy, and genomics I am searching for the chemosensory receptors in the enteric nervous system that detect and differentiate sugar and blood meals. This approach can reveal principles of internal organs chemosensation and how gut-brain communication regulates mosquito biology.
Mechanisms of a Lifetime of Behavior in Aedes aegypti Mosquito Females – Leah Houri-Zeevi PhD
A three step process to study the epigenetic basis of the refractory state.
Female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes mate only once during their lifetime, after which they become refractory to any additional insemination attempts. This shift in behavior is robustly maintained throughout the lifetime of the female (up to 6 weeks) by an unknown mechanism. Although crucial to the understanding of mosquito reproduction and dispersal, little is known about the behavioral or the molecular processes by which females reject males for a lifetime after a single mating event. We would like to mechanistically test the hypothesis that distinct transcriptional and epigenetic changes create the different refractory components and maintain it for a lifetime. Such mechanisms have been linked in the past to social behavior and learning in multiple species and are compelling candidates for sustaining this life-long memory. Refractoriness in female mosquitoes provides a unique system for decoding neuronal and transcriptional changes that modify behavior permanently. Furthermore, understanding of the refractory state in female mosquitoes, and ideally manipulating it, could contribute to the success of controlling the spread of the deadliest animal on the planet.
Hijacking mosquitoes: how arboviruses manipulate their host behavior – Umberto Palatini, PhD
Mosquitoes are often defined as the deadliest animals on earth for their potential to transmit dangerous pathogens to humans. Aedes aegypti is the prime vector for arboviruses such as dengue, Zika and chikungunya. Arboviruses are (re)emerging diseases whose burden on public health is expected to increase concurrently with the global expansion of Aedes aegypti. Arboviruses and mosquitoes share one common target: humans. The transmission of arboviruses depends on the success of infected female mosquitoes in obtaining human blood meals, which they require to reproduce. Prior work has suggested that some parasites and viruses may manipulate insect hosts to enhance virus transmission, but this has never been mechanistically investigated in mosquitoes. Using behavioral assays, next generation sequencing and genome editing techniques I am studying the effects of dengue infection on the mosquito brain and sensory systems, under the hypothesis that dengue hijack mosquito physiology to promote a more aggressive host-seeking and blood-feeding behavior in mosquitoes, which in turn increases viral transmission.
Genetic and Phenotypic Innovation in the Aedes Phylogeny – Priyanka Lakhiani
The mosquito phylogeny spans millions of years of evolution, and anthropophilic species such as Aedes aegypti have adopted various phenotypic mechanisms to expertly seek out and blood feed on humans. The vast genetic diversity across this lineage has allowed mosquitoes to fill new ecological niches and rapidly colonize new regions of the world. Little is currently known about how genetic novelties in mosquito species contribute to novel physiological or behavioral phenotypes, in speciation, reproduction, sexual selection, and sexually-dimorphic behavior. I aim to identify lineage-specific and rapidly-evolving genes in Aedes aegypti that drive phenotypic innovation, especially molecular mechanisms that facilitate ecological expansion or reproductive isolation in sympatric species. Using novel genome assemblies, population genetics data, and tissue- and sex-specific expression patterns, I am interested in characterizing their evolutionary trajectories, selective pressures and effect on mosquito behavior and physiology.
Mechanisms of Blood-feeding Behavior in the Mosquito Brain – Yael Tsitohay
Blood-feeding on hosts is an innate behavior that female mosquitoes carry out to obtain the blood proteins necessary for egg development and reproduction. I am exploring the molecular mechanisms within the mosquito brain that allows faithful maintenance of this crucial behavior. Ongoing work in the lab has identified a gene called 11211, a conserved nuclear and sex-specifically spliced gene across mosquito species. Our preliminary results have shown that 11211 is potentially involved in regulating blood-feeding behavior in Aedes aegypti mosquito. However, how this gene and its protein products function remains unknown. Using genetic, behavioral, and biochemical tools, I am currently investigating the mechanisms through which 11211 regulates blood-feeding in Ae. aegypti at the molecular, cellular, and behavioral levels.
Stylet Chemosensation – Adriana Rosas
A schematic of head structures related to blood-feeding
The mosquito mouthparts are highly specialized for blood-feeding. Once a female mosquito lands in a host, it inserts its proboscis into the skin looking for a suitable meal. The female stylet has on average 28 neurons. Around half of them respond directly to blood. Intriguingly, the same population of neurons can be activated by a saline mixture containing ATP, inducing engorgement in a female mosquito (Jové, et al. 2020). The host-associated ligands that activate the stylet neurons and guide it towards a blood vessel remain largely unknown. Furthermore, the relevance of ATP in vivo has not been studied. Using calcium imaging and other tools to visualize blood-feeding and ATP release, I am interested in exploring what novel cues can induce or deter a mosquito from feeding, ultimately affecting their behavior
Investigation into the Brain-Gonad Pathway that Underlies Plasticity in Mosquito Host-Seeking Behavior – Lauren (Lola) Neal
Inter-organ communication programs are required to maintain homeostasis, allowing an organism to maintain a stable internal state. These axes of communication are involved in several processes including, but not limited to, regulation of metabolism and the coordination of behaviors like feeding and mating. Female Aedes aegypti mosquitos possess an intriguing behavioral pattern in which they actively seek a suitable host to engorge on their blood, enter a refractory period while their eggs develop, and return to the host-seeking behavior once the mature eggs have been expelled. The ways in which changes in host-seeking and its suppression correspond to key time points in the gonotrophic cycle suggest that there may be communication between tissue of the ovary and the brain or other host-seeking related tissues. By approaching this question using bioinformatics, behavioral analysis, and molecular biology techniques, this project aims to provide convincing evidence that changes in host-seeking behavior by female mosquitos are attributed to regulated responses to signals traveling between the ovary and brain. Identifying a new axis of communication that contributes to the mosquito’s host-seeking and biting behaviors will contribute to the field’s overall knowledge of inter-organ communication in insects; additionally, this work will contribute to the knowledge of this particularly deadly mosquito behavior.
Molecular mechanisms of ecdysone transport during mosquito reproduction – Kenzie Yedlin
Ecdysone is a steroid hormone derived from cholesterol that is an essential regulator of arthropod development and a coordinator of insect reproductive cycles. Female Aedes aegypti, a mosquito species responsible for transmitting deadly viruses to humans, rely on ingesting vertebrate blood to initiate egg production. Triggered by this blood meal, ecdysone directs the physiology of egg development through transcriptional activation of many genes. Contrary to previous hypotheses that ecdysone passively diffuses across the cell membrane, recent work has shown that this steroid hormone requires active transport mediated by ecdysone importers in the organic anion transporting polypeptide (OATP) family. Though these proteins are present in species ranging from mosquitoes to humans and are drug targets for many approved medications, little is known experimentally about their mode of transport or structural features. This project aims to elucidate the molecular logic of ecdysone import by a divergent ecdysone importer during Ae. aegypti reproduction, using structural biology complemented by biochemical, pharmacological, and behavioral approaches.
Behavioral and Neural Basis of Repellency in Female Aedes aegypti Mosquitoes – Jacopo Razzauti
Tracked trajectories of a mosquito exposed to human cues (on the left) and human cues plus DEET (on the right).
Female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes employ robust, seemingly “unbreakable” host-seeking behavior to detect and bite humans. Insect repellents containing the active ingredients DEET and picaridin effectively break this strong attraction and prevent bites, but their mechanism of action remains unclear. Although various hypotheses exist to explain how repellents work, the inability to disentangle their multimodal effects hinders our understanding of the underlying sensory mechanisms. Overcoming these obstacles, my project aims to reveal the behavioral and neurocomputational logic underlying repellency in Ae. aegypti.
I combine supervised tracking and pose estimation to determine possible interactive effects between attractive human cues and repellents. In particular, I am interested in how DEET and picaridin disrupt the chaining of actions characterizing host-seeking behavioral sequences.
I am also performing calcium imaging in the central and peripheral nervous system to determine neuronal responses to these repellents.
DEET, a chemical in bug sprays, affects the behavior of highly diverse organisms—but how it works remains unclear. New research in C. elegans shows that the compound exploits unique receptors and neurons to interfere with the animals’ response to odors.
A protein transferred from male to female mosquitoes during sex influences female mating behavior—a phenomenon that could be exploited to limit the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika and dengue.