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Scientists Interpret Mosquito Genes to Help Prevent Spread of Deadly Diseases

Jul 13, 2016 02:03 AM EDT
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Scientists are working on identifying important sequences of a mosquito’s DNA to control the insect’s cell development and behavior.
(Photo : Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Scientists are trying to identify which mosquito genes to switch on or off to reduce the insect's ability to transmit diseases.

Using machine learning, scientists are learning to interpret mosquito genes and identify important DNA sequences within the mosquito genome that regulate how their cells develop and behave.

"Our work will break new ground in the field of mosquito genomics and genetics," Marc Halfon, professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, said in a news release.

"Mosquitoes are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Although we know the sequence of the mosquito genome, we have little functional information about what much of that genome sequence does."

The research is backed by a $449,000 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Experts said that the study could have implications for disease control, potentially facilitating efforts to use genetic engineering to control mosquito populations or to create mosquitoes that have reduced ability to transmit diseases to humans.

"Our work will take important steps toward filling in this crucial missing information. It will demonstrate our ability to functionally annotate the regulatory elements within genomes of various insect disease vectors without requiring extensive -- and expensive -- new genome-scale experimental data for each," the researchers said in a statement.

Switching a Gene "On" and "Off"

According to the scientists, regulatory switches exist within plant or animal genome, and these are strings of DNA that control the behavior of genes and dictate when and which area in the body the genes are to be turned on and off.

Halfon said that these regulatory switches matter because of their effect on a species' mating success and resistance to insecticides.

Moreover, the scientists said that such regulatory mechanisms are important in the genetic engineering of mosquitoes as researchers seek to control the expression of foreign or mutated genes introduced in a target animal.

To help them in their study, Halfon developed a software called SCRMshaw that learns the regulatory sequences within REDfly, and searches the genomes of other insects for strings of DNA with similarities.

Using the SCRMshaw, Halfon and his team were able to identify some of the regulatory sequences that may cause the activity of a network of genes to shift from the midline of the ventral nerve cord to the lateral regions during the formation of the embryo of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is the specie that transmits Zika, dengue fever and chikungunya, Biology News Net reports.

According to the scientists, the next step would involve conducting extensive studies on the regulatory elements within Anopheles gambiae complex of mosquitoes.

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