$1.8M NIH grant will fund research on how a bacterium stops mosquitoes from spreading

Indiana University biologist Irene Newton has been awarded $1.8 million from the National Institutes of Health to investigate the biological mechanisms that enable a specific type of bacteria to infect and then inhibit insects from transmitting diseases such as West Nile virus, dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika.

Irene Newton holds a vial with fruit flies
Irene Newton and colleagues will use fruit flies as a model species to investigate the use of Wolbachia to inhibit mosquito-borne diseases. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

Called Wolbachia, the bacterium acts as a “pathogen blocker” in mosquitoes, which means insects infected with it are unable to pass along certain viruses to new hosts, including people.

“Amazingly, Wolbachia-infected mosquitos have been quite effective at reducing transmission of RNA viruses, including human pathogens,” said Newton, an associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology. “The phenomenon was first discovered in fruit flies and later moved into mosquitos by scientists through a difficult process in order to stop virus transmission to humans.

“What we still don’t know is how Wolbachia actually does any of these things, and that’s what my lab is poised to find out.”

Under the grant, Newton’s research will identify the biological building blocks involved in pathogen blocking. It’s important to understand these mechanisms because Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes are already used in some parts of the world, including the Asia Pacific islands, northern Australia, South America and Mexico

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