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A Fight Against Malaria

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences student changes mosquito diets to prevent spread of malaria

When most people see a mosquito buzzing around their head, they see a pest — a troublesome, aggravating and potentially disease-spreading insect meant to be smacked or repelled.

When Reagan Haney sees a mosquito, she sees opportunity.

Haney, a senior in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) majoring in animal and veterinary science, researches whether altering mosquito diets can reduce the risk of malaria in areas where the disease is a threat.

Though Haney, a native of Jerome, did not originally intend to work in research, her interaction with grant managers and undergraduate researchers during a summer internship sparked her interest. In the fall of 2017, she started working in Professor Shirley Luckhart’s laboratory and was eventually awarded a grant to work on her own research.

“Research has given me a great opportunity to get to know people and to find mentors within my field,” the 22-year-old said. “If all goes according to plan, this method of treating mosquitoes could become a novel way of preventing malaria.”

A New Chemical to Fight Malaria

Haney’s research is based around a chemical called abscisic acid (ABA). ABA was originally known within the scientific community as a plant hormone but has since been discovered in a variety of mammals and sponges. Since then, researchers have studied the effects of the chemical on insects and mammals alike.

Luckhart, Haney’s advisor, said ABA alters how its insect and mammalian hosts function. In past research, ABA has reduced the presence of the parasite in the host’s blood. Now, Luckhart’s laboratory strives to understand the reaction of insect and mammalian hosts to the chemical in hopes they can ultimately develop a drug to combat malaria. Luckhart works in both the College of Science and CALS.

In her own research, Haney studies how the supplementation of mosquitoes’ diets with ABA may reduce the number of eggs they lay. Reducing the number of mosquitoes in malaria-prone areas generally reduces the rate at which the disease can spread, she said.

Haney runs her experiment with three batches of adult mosquitoes at any given time. The first group acts as a control — they receive no ABA in their food — while the second and third group receive food containing small and large dosages of ABA, respectively.

"Research has given me a great opportunity to get to know people and to find mentors within my field. If all goes according to plan, this method of treating mosquitoes could become a novel way of preventing malaria." Reagan Haney, animal and veterinary science undergraduate

At the beginning of each cycle, Haney feeds the mosquitoes in a process that she laughingly refers to as “making the blood.” The “blood” isn’t natural blood, but rather a mixture of nutrients and ABA. By mixing the blood herself, Haney can accurately keep track of the mosquitoes’ diets. Haney places the warmed mixture in a membrane feeder, which consists of a cup covered with a skin-like film through which the mosquitoes feed.

As the mosquitoes ingest the acid, Haney tracks which individual insects drink from the membrane. After an insect drinks, she captures it and places each mosquito in its own tube.

“I’d say the greatest challenge of this project is working with the mosquitoes,” Haney said. “Obviously, they’re really small, and they tend not to cooperate.”

Though the process can be painstaking, Haney has found success rounding up these tiny creatures throughout each iteration of her project. Once the mosquitoes are confined to their individual tubes, Haney waits for them to lay their eggs. After the mosquitoes have deposited their eggs in the tubes, Haney takes pictures of the eggs and counts them to determine whether the ABA supplements affected the fertility of the mosquitoes.

Reagan Haney stands with fall foliage in the background.
Reagan Haney smiles as she discusses her work with mosquitos.

Preventing Disease Spread

Scientific progress doesn’t come without setbacks and obstacles. Throughout her research, Haney has encountered a variety of difficulties. For example, 70 of the 200 mosquitoes in one of her treatment groups died with no apparent cause the first time she attempted the experiment.

And, at times, the results of Haney’s experiment are less favorable than she expected. As of November, ABA has not reduced the mosquitoes’ capacity to lay eggs, but Haney said she has only just started her work and needs to collect more data before the results are definitive. If ABA can reduce the proliferation of malaria-ridden mosquitoes, the chemical can be applied safely to stagnant water sources where mosquitoes lay their eggs.

The World Health Organization reported 216 million cases of malaria throughout the world in 2016. Haney hopes her research could eventually lead to the successful prevention of even a small percentage of those cases.

“The work in our lab is focused on understanding mosquito and human responses to malaria parasite infection,” Luckhart said. “We’ll leverage this work as a basis to develop new drugs and new strategies to prevent and treat disease in the human host and to block parasite transmission from mosquitoes to humans.”

Reagan Haney is an OUR Travel Grant and OUR Undergraduate Research Grant award recipient.

Article by Seth King, a junior from Pasco, Washington double majoring in English with a teaching emphasis and computer science.

Photos by Cody Allred, a sophomore from Council studying public relations.

Published in March 2019.

This project was funded under National Science Foundation grant No. 1757826. The total project funding is $363,930 of which 100 percent is the federal share.


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