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Mosquito research course gives students cutting-edge experience, skills


Two people wearing white coats standing at a table in a lab.

Host Microbe Interactions is a course-based research experience that gives students hands-on experience conducting research as they work to determine how changes in the microbiome of local mosquito populations affects mosquito biology and, subsequently, disease transmission. Photo courtesy School of Life Sciences/ASU

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September 12, 2023

Microorganisms exist all around us, interacting closely with their living host organisms. We know that these microbes are critical to the way our world functions, but we still have so much to learn about how they affect host biology. 

A new course at Arizona State University is putting students at the forefront of this rapidly growing field of study. Created by School of Life Sciences Assistant Professor Nsa Dada, Host Microbe Interactions is a course-based research experience designed to give students the chance to engage in the full process of research — from research development and design to sample collection, handling and molecular analysis; bioinformatics analysis; and synthesis and communication of findings.

“Just being able to have a teacher that can (oversee) what you are doing really helps with confidence. That way, when we get out to the work field, out to the industry, we aren’t scared to do our jobs,” said Ricardo Chapa, who graduated in the summer of 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biosciences and biotechnology.

Students in the new course examine host-microbe interactions by studying the world’s deadliest animal: the mosquito.

RELATED: Inside the insectary: ASU faculty innovate mosquito control and disease prevention

As a vector biologist and microbial ecologist, Dada is interested in how microbes shape mosquito biology and mosquito-borne disease transmission. She is the founder and lead of the Mosquito Microbiome Consortium, leads pioneering and award-winning research on microbe-mediated evolution of insecticide resistance in mosquito populations around the world, and leads initiatives toward expanding disease vector genomics research in Africa.

The research aim of the first iteration of the Host Microbe Interactions course in spring 2023 was to characterize the microbiome of mosquito populations within Maricopa County as a baseline for monitoring changes in the microbiome over time in response to environmental pressures like insecticide use. 

Students used a next-generation sequencing technique called high throughput amplicon sequencing to process samples, and then analyzed the resulting data using a Python platform called QIIME 2 (Quantitative Insights into Microbial Ecology), an advanced bioinformatics tool.  

“It’s cutting edge; one of the coolest skills you can have as a biologist is computational biology. We have supercomputers on our laptops,” Chapa said. 

“A lot of people in this class, including myself, have been coding for the first or second time, so it’s definitely a shift in how you think about things. I’m getting a lot out of it,” said Don Ward, a first-year PhD student in biology.

“I am thankful for my very first cohort of students at ASU,” Dada said. “I am really proud of how far they have come and I could not have asked for a better group of people to begin my journey here at ASU.”

Hands-on research experience is an invaluable part of the academic journey for students pursuing STEM degrees. 

“I can read things all day but until I practically get in the lab and make mistakes, and feel and see how long it takes things, and just play around, I’m not going to really retain anything,” said Sarah Rydberg, biology graduate student and research specialist in the Center for Evolution and Medicine.  

“It’s nice having a block of time for me to do both of these things, and I think it will make me a stronger employee overall,” she added.

Video courtesy ASU's School of Life Sciences

Firsthand experience with laboratory procedures and techniques, computational biology and bioinformatics methods prepare students for future opportunities in graduate programs, medical school and research careers. 

“It’s certainly good for resumes later on, when you tell the employer I have experience with mosquitos, with plants, DNA extraction, purification, PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), gel electrophoresis. When you name all those things, they recognize that a student is well prepared to be in the field, to work,” said Osami Alani, a molecular bioscience and biotech major who graduated in May 2023. 

“Other than that, it’s pretty fun; if you like what you’re doing, it’s pretty fun,” Alani added.

Host Microbe Interactions was held for the very first time in spring 2023 and has now entered its second cohort. The overarching goal for students of this second iteration of the course is to determine how changes in the microbiome of local mosquito populations affects mosquito biology and, subsequently, disease transmission. The research outcomes could potentially be leveraged for mitigating mosquito-borne diseases.

In addition to being an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, Dada is affiliated with the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics. She joined ASU in the fall of 2022, and Host Microbe Interactions is the first course she has created for the School of Life Sciences. It is an integral part of her new public health and educational program at ASU, which explores the use of the mosquito microbiome as a tool for monitoring mosquito population and disease transmission dynamics. 

The research that comes out of the Host Microbe Interactions course has the potential to serve as an early warning system for potential mosquito-borne disease outbreaks or the detection of insecticide resistance hotspots in Maricopa County. To that end, Dada is establishing new collaborations with the county's vector control unit to combine efforts toward controlling mosquito-borne diseases in the county.

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