Wageningen University: Florian Muijres receives grant for in-swarm mating of malaria mosquitoes

Florian Muijres has been awarded a prestigious grant to study what the mating dance of malaria mosquitoes in a swarm looks like. In this research, Muijres will collaborate with colleagues from the USA, Belgium and Burkina Faso. The study may offer a new possibility in the fight against malaria: preventing the mosquitoes from procreating. The Human Frontier Science Program has awarded a 400-thousand-euro annual grant for this three-year investigation.

The basics of how malaria mosquitoes mate is known: in complex swarms of thousands of males. Occasionally females will join the swam, and, after some time, a female may fly alongside a male. ‘In a swarm and during flight, the male and female will synchronise their wingbeat pattern’, Muijres says. ‘This synchronisation can be seen as a mating dance.’

600 times a second
These mosquitoes beat their wings no less than 600 times per second. After synchronisation, the mating follows, while airborne and in the swarm. Following copulation, the female then leaves the swarm in search of a human on which to blood feed for her eggs.

Muijres: ‘We aim to record the details of what transpires during these mating swarms using special high-speed cameras. We want to see how a swarm emerges, how males compete for the female, how the mating dance works and how the mosquitoes mate in flight. So far, we know only pieces of the puzzle, but, with this research, we hope to complete it.’

Malaria
A completed puzzle may offer new possibilities in the fight against malaria. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 400,000 people die from malaria each year. Fighting mosquitoes is the most effective strategy in counteracting this disease. Previous research by Muijres contributed to a new mosquito trap that prevents the mosquitoes from infecting humans.

New insights through this study may prevent or disrupt these mating swarms in densely populated areas. This may reduce the number of mosquitoes that bite humans and spread malaria in the act.

Human Frontier Science Program
These new possibilities in the fight against malaria are all but certain, but this is precisely one of the key criteria in acquiring funding from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP). This organisation chooses to award grants to so-called ‘high risk, high gain’ research. So far, this has yielded 28 Nobel prizes, the website states with pride. ‘I really had to show that this had never been done before’, says leading applicant Muijres. ‘Moreover, it is important to work with groups from other continents with which you have not previously worked.’

Collaboration is another crucial criterium to be considered for the subsidy. Muijres colleagues in Belgium are able to create realistic swarms under lab conditions, which can then be filmed. The scientists from the US have expertise in how the mosquitos’ brains work, and the scientists from Burkina Faso have knowledge of how swarms emerge in field conditions.

Muijres is the leading applicant for this study, and which has been awarded a 400-thousand-euro subsidy per year for its three-year duration. Wageningen University & Research collaborates with the Institute de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé in Burkina Faso, the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium and the University of Washington in the United States.

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