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USM Biology Professor Collaborates with University of Florida Scientists on Research Involving Zika Virus

Wed, 06/19/2019 - 10:40am | By: Van Arnold

Research conducted by University of Southern Mississippi (USM) biology Professor Donald Yee, in collaboration with University of Florida scientists, could lead to a better understanding of why certain mosquitoes contract the deadly Zika virus.

In a new study, the researchers examined how quality and quantity of food ingested by the yellow fever mosquito affect its biology, including its ability to become infected by, and potentially transmit, the Zika virus.

Scientists are interested in the virus because it can make people sick and in rare cases may cause paralysis (Guillain-Barré Syndrome) and birth defects. Zika made frequent headlines in 2015 and 2016 after an outbreak of the virus in Brazil made its way to people in Florida and other places. Scientists believe the yellow fever mosquito – was the primary culprit behind that Zika outbreak.

Yee has been working on the intersection of mosquito stoichiometry (nutrients balance) and viral transmission in his USM lab for the past two years. He and University of Florida Associate Professor of entomology Barry Alto conducted a smaller project a few years ago with similar results before electing to expand the research.

During the study, researchers manipulated the amount and type of detritus -- animal and plant material – provided to mosquito larvae.

They discovered that mosquitoes developed more rapidly and grew larger as adults if they were reared in a nitrogen-rich environment. Scientists also found the young mosquitoes with more animal material in their diets were less susceptible to infection and transmitting the Zika virus as adults

“We have been exploring the possibility that nitrogen, as a limiting element in nature, can be allocated to the mosquitoes’ immune system,” said Yee. “If it has extra nitrogen, it can send more of it to immunity, and thus ward off infection. If mosquitoes can fight off the virus, then they cannot pass it along to a human host. The results seem to suggest that more nitrogen means lower ability to transmit as well.”

Yee notes that the research study is set for publication in the scientific journal Oecologia sometime this summer.