A team of UC Riverside researches will receive nearly $2.5 million in federal grants over a five-year period to find ways of slashing female mosquito populations, and thereby curbing insect-borne diseases, using genetic modification, it was announced Friday.

The National Institute of Allergy & Infection Diseases will provide the funds to help further work by entomologists Alexander Raikhel and Souray Roy, both attached to the UCR Department of Entomology.

Their project, “Molecular Basis of Ecdysteroid Action in the Mosquito,” is seeking methods of controlling the reproductive cycles of mosquitoes, according to campus officials.

“A clear understanding of the molecular mechanisms regulating egg development in mosquitoes can play a critical role in our coming up with innovative and novel vector control methods,” Raikhel said.

The researchers noted that about one million people die worldwide each year from mosquito-transmitted diseases such as the chikungunya virus, dengue, malaria, West Nile and Zika.

“Alleviating these diseases is not only critical for protecting human life, but also for improving social progress in vulnerable communities,” Raikhel said. “Recent expansion of Aedes mosquitoes northward from Central America has become a looming threat generating a major public health concern.”

Aedes aegypti breeds have been netted in Riverside County over the past several years. They’re notorious for carrying yellow fever and the Zika virus.

Roy acknowledged that wide-scale elimination of mosquitoes is “unrealistic” regardless of how advanced the scientific methods may be.

“A significant decline in their population, however, is realistic,” he said. “Combined with novel insecticides for mosquitoes and vaccines and anti-pathogen drugs, such approaches could significantly reduce mosquito populations and incidence of diseases they transmit.”

Finding a means of effectively disrupting female reproductive cycles and the number of eggs they can lay is vital, according to the researchers.

Raikhel said blocking egg development may be possible after mosquitoes have a “blood meal” due to the condition of the females’ hormones.

“We have identified several factors and hormones involved in these functions, such as insulin and ecdysone,” the professor said. “We discovered that ecdysone not only activates some genes but also shuts down others in the course of the reproductive cycle. In our previous studies, we worked out the mechanism by which ecdysone activates mosquito genes. But how ecdysone represses genes has not been observed in any insect, including mosquitoes.”

Along with Raikhel and Roy, two postdoctoral scholars and several students will be working on the project, according to campus officials.

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