Scientists at Vanderbilt and Yale universities have successfully transplanted most of the "nose" of the mosquito that spreads malaria into frog eggs and fruit flies and are employing these surrogates to combat the spread of the deadly and debilitating disease that afflicts 500 million people.
The research is described in two complimentary papers, one published this week in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the other which appeared online Feb. 3 in the journal Nature.
The mosquito's "nose" is centered in its antennae, which are filled with nerve cells covered with special "odorant receptors" that react to different chemical compounds. The insect ORs are comparable to analogous receptors in the human nose and taste buds on the tongue.
"We've successfully expressed about 80 percent of the Anopheles mosquito's odorant receptors in frog's eggs and in the fruit fly antennae," says Laurence Zwiebel, professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt, whose lab performed the frog egg transplantation. The fruit-fly (Drosophila melanogaster) work was done in the laboratory of John Carlson, Eugene Higgins Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale.
Both accomplishments are part of a five-year project supported by the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative funded by the Foundation for NIH through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with the goal of producing novel ways to inhibit the spread of malaria. Scientists from the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the African Insect Science for Food and Health Institute in Kenya, Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania and the Medical Research Council Laboratories in the Gambia are also participating in the project.
Previously, scientists have used frog eggs to study the olfactory receptors of moths, honeybees and fruit flies. DNA that encodes insect receptors are injected into a frog egg and given sufficient time to produce and localize proteins. As a result, the surface of the egg is covered with the mosquito odorant receptors. An engineered egg is placed in a voltage clamp system and an odorant is dissolved in the buffer solution in which the egg is floating. If the mosquito receptors react to the compound, the electrical properties of the egg change in a measurable fashion.
"The frog egg system is relatively rapid, highly sensitive and allows us to do very precise measurements of odorant response," says Guirong Wang, a senior research associate in the Zwiebel lab who was the lead author on the PNAS study and carried out several thousand egg/odorant recordings. "However, we call this a medium throughput system because, while it is relatively quick to set up, we have to make the odorant solutions by hand, which goes relatively slowly."