Current Research
Genetics of Innate Behavior in Mosquitoes and Humans

Molecular biologist Leslie Vosshall seeks to understand how an animal’s behavior is guided by integrating sensory input with information about its internal physiological state. Her group studies this problem in both mosquitoes and humans.

For a female mosquito to complete egg development, for example, the insect requires a blood meal. Acquiring that blood from a human is an innate behavior that potentially spreads dangerous infectious diseases carried by the insect. Vosshall has developed CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing tools for use in the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a vector for dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever. This technology allows her team to apply a genetic approach to understanding how female mosquitoes integrate sensory cues such as body odor, heat, and exhaled carbon dioxide to hunt their human hosts.

Her group is currently pursuing a number of questions: Why are some people more attractive to mosquitoes than others? How do insect repellents work? How are multiple sensory cues integrated in the mosquito brain to elicit innate behaviors? How do female mosquitoes select a body of water suitable for egg laying? This work provides insights into potential methods to control mosquitoes’ biting behavior.

Vosshall also studies the rules that govern the human sense of smell, which is far less understood than vision or hearing. Her lab’s Rockefeller University Smell Study has screened the sense of smell in more than 3,000 normal human subjects since 2002. Vosshall is using data from the study to investigate central questions in olfaction: How does the sense of smell differ among people? How many different smells can humans discriminate? How does the chemical structure of an odorant relate to its perceived odor? Discoveries in this area have the potential to aid the diagnosis of smell disorders in humans.

Figure: The birth of a mosquito. This adult Aedes aegypti female mosquito has recently hatched from the pupal case and is about to become airborne for the first time. She will soon seek humans for a blood-meal. CREDIT: ©Alex Wild, used by permission.

Movie: Mosquito blood-feeding on a membrane feeder.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health provided partial support for these projects.

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