Project Description

Biological control of mosquitoes often fails and thus needs radical new approaches; here, we will harness variation in the predatory efficiencies of native invertebrate predators of mosquitoes. Behavioural, ecological and genetic techniques will be blended and the research operationalised locally and globally.

Mosquito borne diseases affect millions of humans and animals annually and may be exacerbated with climate change; hence, innovative new methods to reduce these impacts are imperative. The development of biocontrol using predators of mosquitoes to tackle disease transmission (eg malaria, West Nile virus) has typically used alien predators1, often leading to deleterious impacts on non-target organisms/communities. Changing focus from vertebrate (eg fish) to invertebrate (eg copepod) control agents brings advantages, as invertebrates are more abundant and tolerant of environmental extremes, and have greater reproduction and dispersal. Thus, small invertebrate predators have great potential for cheap, easy to manage and effective mosquito biocontrol2. Specifically, we will harness variation in the predatory efficiency among individuals within populations of native predators, evidenced by variation in per capita feeding rates or “functional responses” of such predators3. We will thus screen a range of native European and African invertebrates (eg beetles, shrimp, copepods) and proceed to test five core Hypotheses: With functional response analyses, we will quantify individual mosquito predator efficiencies (H1), test individual predator consistency over time (H2) and identify heritability of such traits in subsequent generations (H3). Transcriptomic differences will be assessed using RNAseq (H4) and correlation/deep machine learning approaches, for example, Logic Forest will investigate the relationship between the gene expression signatures and phenotypic measures linked to increased predator efficiency. The genomic impact will be assessed via high throughput RNA sequencing (H5). The deep RNA-Seq will guide gene expression-based quantitative trait locus (QTL) studies providing information on allele-specific expression (ASE) and RNA-isoform expression. This methodology will allow us to exploit variation among individuals within populations, and identify those native species with the highest, and most consistently heritable, biocontrol potential. We will engage with local and global stakeholders (eg PHA, DAERA, AFBI, NGOs, CABI, health professionals, farmers, vets, community groups) to disseminate ‘inoculation packs’ of native biocontrol agents; plus provide education packs of universally-interpretable (ie pictures and flow charts) information on use of control agents. Training and supervision in functional response experiments will be provided by Prof Dick (QUB) and Dr Cuthbert (QUB) and computational biology and genomics by Prof Hardiman (QUB); Dr Bodey will train the student in measuring trait variation in species. The student will engage with European/Southern African partners, and collaborate with Dr Archie Murchie (AFBI NI) and join existing QUADRAT students. 

We take a hypothesis driven approach to the research, with 5 core hypotheses regarding biological control of mosquitoes with native invertebrate predators: 

Hypothesis 1 (H1): There is significant variation in predatory efficiency among otherwise morphologically identical individual predators within species/ populations;

Hypothesis 2 (H2):  Highly efficient predators within populations maintain this high predatory efficiency over time;

Hypothesis 3 (H3): Individuals showing high predatory efficiency produce offspring with the same predatory characteristics;

Hypothesis 4 (H4): Individuals showing high predatory efficiency exhibit altered transcriptomic profiles and perturbation of key biological pathways;

Hypothesis 5 (H5): Individuals with high predatory efficiency will have altered genomic loci that contribute to variation in expression levels of mRNA and modified proteins. 

Essential & desirable candidate skills

Essential: Basic laboratory and field work skills in the areas of ecology/behaviour/genetics. 

Desirable: Experience of mosquito species in laboratory and field situations, training in bioinformatics. 

Supervisors

Jaimie TA Dick

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Jaimie TA Dick
Email: j.dick@qub.ac.uk
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Thomas Bodey

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Thomas Bodey
Email: thomas.bodey@abdn.ac.uk
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Gary Hardiman

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Gary Hardiman
Email: g.hardiman@qub.ac.uk
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Dr Ross Cuthbert, formerly Humboldt Research Fellow, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, currently QUB  Leverhulme Fellow, Expert Advisor on Mosquito Biocontrol;

Dr Dan Barrios-O’Neill, Leverhulme Research Fellow, University of Exeter, Expert Advisor on Multi-Species Interactions;

Prof Ryan Wasserman, Professor of Zoology, Rhodes University, Makhanda (Grahamstown),South Africa, Supervisor for South African Field and Laboratory Mosquito Studies;

Dr Archie Murchie, AFBI, Expert Advisor on Integrated Pest Management and Mosquito Surveillance. 

References

1.Shaalan, E. A.-S. & Canyon, D. V. (2009). Aquatic insect predators and mosquito control. Trop. Biomed. 26: 223–261. 

2. Cuthbert, R.N., Callaghan, A., Sentis, A., Dalal, A. & Dick, J.T.A. (2020). Additive multiple predator effects can reduce mosquito populations. Ecological Entomology, 45: 243-250.

3. Alexander, M.E., Dick, J.T.A. & O’Connor, N.E. (2015). Predation in the marine intertidal amphipod Echinogammarus marinus Leach: implications of inter- and intra-individual variation. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 462: 50-54.

Expected Training Provision

You will learn a range of transferable skills that will make you highly competitive for a career in research, applied ecology/genetics and consultancy, including: experimental design; field sampling; animal handling; fieldwork logistics; analysis and synthesis of large datasets; advanced statistical techniques; computational biology and genomics; and communication skills through traditional and emerging media to a wide variety of audiences. 

Specific training will be in Functional Response and Relative Control Potential metric experimental design, data acquisition, data management, statistical analyses and modelling, plus presentational graphics; multiple packages for these will be used, but in particular “R” statistical/ graphics packages will be employed and training provided. Training will be on-going at QML in the maintenance, husbandry, breeding and security of mosquitoes and their predators, such as copepods, gammarids and dytiscid beetles. Training in behavioural analyses from video recordings using JWalker will be provided at QUB and UoA. Bioinformatics training in the analysis of RNAseq data, in particular sequence read alignment and QC, differential expression analysis using DEseq2 and systems level analysis will be provided at QUB. Generic training activities associated with QUADRAT will be facilitated, such as field courses and statistical methods, and other bespoke training provide in eg mosquito surveillance in the wild (Dr Archie Murchie, AFBI), biocontrol agent discovery and assessment (Dr Ross Cuthbert), and community engagement and education (Prof Ryan Wasserman). Thus, focussed training in all the research methods for this particular project will be provided, plus generic training to improve employability of the student will be ongoing in line with the spirit of the QUADRAT Charter. Other generic training will be in oral and poster conference delivery, report and manuscript preparation, and public/stakeholder engagement through eg maximising social media activity.

Impact

Disease transmission and nuisance biting by mosquitoes costs £billions to global economies annually, and severely impacts human/animal health and well-being across almost every region of the world. These threats are increasing with climate change induced range expansions and new invasions by mosquitoes (eg tiger mosquito in Europe). In the UK, there are 34 species of mosquito already, with invasive species that are dangerous disease vectors likely to arrive soon. Thus, research that is directed into developing environmentally friendly methods of mosquito biocontrol has potential to positively impact economies, animal and human health and welfare, replace more costly, damaging and risky strategies (eg chemical control, gene drive technologies) and thus contribute significantly to several UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG). Importantly this project is concerned with examining the efficiency and effectiveness of native species as biocontrol agents. Previous attempts at mosquito biocontrol have frequently used introduced species which have, in turn, turned out to be relatively ineffective at control while also becoming problematic as invasive species in their own right (eg mosquitofish Gambusia). This project will therefore also contribute to efforts within the UNSDG and CBD Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework Targets to reduce the pathways and rate of introduction of invasive species, further contributing to the conservation of biodiversity. The explicit incorporation into this studentship of education and information dissemination of the research results to frontline areas, such as farming and local communities, means this research could have immense impact on society. The research on mosquito biocontrol will also benefit other vector/animal/human/disease systems, such as midges and associated disease (eg bluetongue), control of pestiferous slugs (eg with marsh flies) and thus provide an exemplar for other projects and research on major disease vectors and their impacts requiring advances in biocontrol research and implementation. 

Proposed Timetable

This 42 month studentship will start with a thorough literature review and data mining exercise directed by Dick, Hardiman and Bodey to establish both the specific research directions (eg which target species/potential biocontrol agents to pursue) and utilize existing data on such species to begin training in the behavioural and ecological analyses (functional responses, Relative Control Potential). Simultaneously, the mosquito laboratory/biosecure facility at QML will be up-scaled to provide specimens for pilot experiments and the student trained in animal husbandry, breeding and safe usage in experiments by Dick and resident technicians (Exley, Healey). Surveys for local invertebrate predators in Ireland/Scotland will begin in Year 1 and candidate biocontrol agents selected based on pilot studies with Dick/Bodey. An introduction to and training in genomics (RNA extraction, RNAseq library preparation, RNAseq data analysis, assessment of SNV functional impacts) in Year 1 will be conducted by Hardiman. We envisage functional response experiments to be completed from mid Year 1 across Year 2/3 with Dick/Bodey, with simultaneous data from genomics, systems biology and deep learning analyses from Hardiman. Training as detailed above will ensure rapid data collection, maintenance and management, with statistical tests and modelling instruction provided by all supervisors, plus bespoke courses eg “R”. We envisage Year 2 and 3 yielding at least 3 potential biocontrol agents being subject to Hypotheses 1-5, with potential to pilot larger scale mesocosm and field-site trials of mosquito biocontrol agents. The collaboration with AFBI (Dr Archie Murchie) will provide field surveillance research methods and provide an environment of Integrated Pest Management. In Year 2 until end, the student will develop educational and information materials, such as infographics, to help operationalize the work. With a strong emphasis on publication and dissemination, the student will be mentored on manuscript preparation throughout plus conference delivery and networking. 

QUADRAT Themes

  • biodiversity
  • environmental-management

Partners

Not applicable at this time.

View All Projects