Student Research Spotlight - Megan Wilkerson
Posted: May 23, 2014
A Possible End to West Nile Virus
By Amanda Catena
A PhD student at Penn State University is working on a way to use bacteria to stop mosquitoes from transmitting West Nile Virus to humans.
Entomologist Megan Wilkerson, along with a team of scientists from the Rasgon Lab, is studying bacteria in the genus Wolbachia to see if it can be used to kill mosquitoes. Wilkerson can vary the levels of bacteria using antibiotics to shorten or lengthen a mosquito’s lifespan. Although this bacteria naturally occurs in many species of mosquito, at high enough concentrations it can be lethal to them.
“These new developments have the potential to change the face of mosquito-borne disease control,” Wilkerson said. She went on to paint the picture of a world free of West Nile virus or even malaria without the use of pesticides.
For years researchers have been investigating how Wolbachia affect mosquito biology. Wilkerson’s work takes it a step further and examines how Wolbachia interacts with other bacteria naturally found inside mosquitoes. Using bacteria to control mosquitoes instead of traditional pesticides offers a very special advantage. When pesticides kill rapidly only the immune mosquitoes survive. This means future generations of mosquitoes that can’t be killed by pesticides. Bacteria induced death takes advantage of the lengthy incubation time of viruses, such as malaria, by allowing the mosquito to live long enough to reproduce, but not long enough to transmit the disease. This means future generations of mosquitoes will not be immune to the bacteria. Malaria alone takes over one million lives a year. A development like this has the potential to drastically reduce that number.