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NMSU professor, student among scientists worldwide mapping mosquito DNA

New Mexico State University professor Immo Hansen and graduate student David Price are among 120 scientists from around the world who co-authored a paper about mosquito DNA that may help solve the mystery of why only some mosquito species evolved to transmit deadly diseases like malaria to humans.

Two men looking at a computer screen
NMSU biology professor Immo Hansen (left) and graduate student David Price compare genetic data on various species of mosquitoes that transmit malaria to humans. The two are co-authors of a recent paper in the journal “Science.” (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Their research is featured on the cover of the Jan. 2 edition of the journal “Science.”

Hansen, an associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Price, an NMSU graduate student in the molecular biology program, were part of an international collaboration to sequence the DNA of 16 species of mosquitoes in the genus Anopheles, known to transmit human malaria. The specimens came from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, spanning 100 million years of evolution.

“The most dangerous animals in the world are the females of the mosquito genus Anopheles,” Price said. “What makes them so dangerous is that they are the vector for human malaria. Even following a 17-year, multi-billion dollar series of programs by the Roll Back Malaria Partnership an estimated 600,000 people die each year while many more become seriously ill from malaria.

“By comparing how genes and the genome are different between the 16 species, researchers around the world can now further explore the genetics of what makes some Anopheles mosquito susceptible to malaria parasites.”

Until recently the lack of data limited scientists’ ability to compare various human malaria transmitting mosquito species and identify the genes determining the various species’ capacity to transmit the disease.

The role of the researchers from NMSU in this paper was to compare an important class of genes across the 16 newly sequenced mosquito genomes with the existing Anopheles gambiae genome.

“Specifically, we examined genes which encode water channels called aquaporins,” said Price. “Aquaporin function is extremely important for mosquito survival. As larvae they are aquatic while the adults must conserve water in order not to dehydrate and when a female takes blood, she has to excrete large amounts of water through these aquaporins.”

“We found all Anopheles species have the same number of aquaporin genes. Changes within the genes themselves have been conservative changes which preserve function,” Price added.

Hansen explained the results indicate that despite the worldwide distribution and different habitats of these different species, the water transport machinery is very similar.

“These findings could help to develop novel mosquito control methods targeting these water transport proteins,” Hansen said.

Hansen added that understanding which traits allow certain species of mosquitoes to transmit human malaria can help researchers eventually find new ways to stop them from spreading the disease.