Mosquito-borne diseases affecting man and livestock constitute a major international socio-economic and public health problem. Vector control through the use of insecticides remains a key, and for some major pathogens – the only, means of managing these diseases. However, sustainability of the insecticidal tools is threatened by the evolution and increasing spread of insecticide resistance in field mosquito populations. Novel effective approaches to control mosquito-borne diseases are, thus, urgently needed, and their development requires detailed understanding of the basic biology of mosquitoes.
Our current research focuses on genes activated during development of major mosquito vector species. Specifically, we are interested in components of sex determination and spermatogenesis molecular pathways. Interfering with the expression of genes involved in sex determination should lead to elimination of blood-feeding and pathogen-transmitting females either through female-specific embryonic lethality (recently documented by our group for the African malaria mosquito, Anopheles gambiae), or masculinization (sex reversal of genetic females into phenotypic males). On the other hand, spermatogenesis genes with no discernible homologues in non-mosquito insect groups represent highly promising targets to cause selective mosquito-specific male sterility.
We use state of the art methods of transcriptome profiling and comparative genomics to identify genes vital in these processes. Our findings are validated by functional analyses involving RNA in situ hybridization and in vivo knock-down, knock-out, or overexpression of individual genes. Function of genes from both pathways is further exploited by our group in transgenic technology to conditionally eliminate females and efficiently produce sterile male generations for genetic vector control. Beyond genetic control, products of spermatogenesis genes are also analysed as potential targets of new mosquito-specific sterilizing compounds.