Malaria, one of the most common infectious diseases in the world, is estimated to have sickened over 200 million people and killed more than 600,000 in 2012, according to the World Health Organization.
With those kinds of numbers, and the fact that the disease is present in more than half of the world’s countries, it might seem like any effort to eliminate the disease would be futile.
But an international consortium of scientists, including a Cal Poly Pomona researcher and a graduate student, may have just taken an important step in that direction. They’ve unlocked the genomes of 16 species of Anopheles mosquitoes, the only type of mosquito capable of transmitting malaria among humans.
Not all Anopheles mosquitoes are created equal though. Despite being closely related, some species of Anopheles mosquitoes are able to transmit malaria, while others are not. Discovering why that difference exists could be the key to stopping malaria in its tracks, says Cal Poly Pomona Biology Professor Peter Arensburger.
If researchers were to discover the genes that allow some mosquitoes to transmit malaria, they might be able take that ability away with genetic engineering, Arensburger says.
“There is a drive to try and modify these mosquitoes artificially: that is, to try and genetically alter these mosquitoes so it will not be able to carry these diseases,” says Arensburger, who has also helped sequence the genome of the tsetse fly, which transmits African sleeping sickness.
Jenny McCarthy, one of Arensburger’s former students, contributed to the research and co-authored the paper outlining their findings, which was published online in November by the journal Science, one of the world’s leading scientific journals.
“I learned a lot about programming and about how to do research, McCarthy says. “I learned a lot in the process of writing the paper. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Since finishing the mosquito research, McCarthy has graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology, and she’s now studying as a graduate student in the lab of Cal Poly Pomona Biology Professor Angel Valdes, whose research focuses on sea slugs. She hopes to eventually obtain her Ph.D. and have a lab of her own.
“I’ve had so many great professors here who have been so encouraging,” she says. “I’d like to continue on with that.”
With the genome sequencing of mosquitoes and tsetse flies under his belt, Arensburger is moving on to a new research topic — spiders.
“Spiders are basically the big unknown of arthropod biology,” he says. “I expect we’re going to find completely unexpected things.”