MSU President's Column for Traill County Tribune

June 27, 2020

Mayville State researchers studying mosquitoes this summer

With the return of summer to the area, also comes the return of mosquitoes. They are not only annoying pests, they are also potentially dangerous. On the flip side, they play an important role in our environment. Did you know there are more than 3,000 different species of mosquitoes throughout the world? Of these, currently 176 species are recognized in the United States. Data collected by a team of researchers at Mayville State University will provide insights into the role of mosquitoes in this area. The goal of the project is to better understand mosquito species composition and population dynamics. This data can help us to understand disease transmission for pathogens that are vectored by mosquitoes.

The mosquito has been identified by some as the most dangerous creature on earth. Mosquitoes and the diseases they spread have been responsible for killing more people than all the wars in history. Even today, mosquitoes transmitting malaria kill two million to three million people and infect another 200 million or more every year. Tens of millions more are killed and debilitated by a host of other mosquito-borne diseases, including filariasis, yellow fever, dengue, and encephalitis.

For millions of Americans, malaria is something other people get somewhere else. The fact is that nearly half of the world’s population is at risk for malaria. Residents of the United States are not immune. Malaria has occurred in the United States, and still does on rare occasions. Mosquitoes capable of carrying and transmitting malaria still inhabit most parts of this country, and an influx of malaria-infected persons has produced localized malaria transmission in some areas of the United States.

Today, however, the threat of developing encephalitis from mosquitoes is far greater than the threat of malaria in the United States. Encephalitis, meningitis, and other diseases can develop from the bites of mosquitoes infected with certain viruses. These include the viruses of West Nile, St. Louis encephalitis, LaCrosse (California) encephalitis, and Eastern equine and Western equine encephalitis.

To help collect critical research data that will show the effects of mosquitoes in our area, Dr. Joseph Mehus, chair of the MSU Division of Science and Mathematics, Associate Professor of Biology, and North Dakota INBRE (IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence) researcher, has secured a North Dakota INBRE grant. Grant funding is being used for the purpose of studying mosquito biology and ecology in Traill and Steele Counties in North Dakota.

Dr. Mehus and his three Mayville State student researchers, Taylor Painter, Fargo, N.D., Lily Pyle, Casselton, N.D., and Laura Jacobson, Finley, N.D., are focusing on which mosquito species inhabit four different ecosystems they have identified in the Mayville-Portland area. They are monitoring population dynamics, or when the mosquitoes are most prevalent in the identified ecosystems. The group is collecting mosquitoes from each of the four sites, identifying them to species, and distinguishing mosquitoes that have already taken a bloodmeal. They will extract the blood from the gut of the engorged mosquitoes and can use DNA analysis to determine the origin of the blood (cow, dog, bird, human, etc.).

Many people take disease transmission studies for granted, but these studies provide important background data that is used to make informed decisions. The MSU students who are participating in the project will be able to recognize the general societal knowledge of mosquitoes and apply real scientific data in decision-making. In addition, they’ll be able to determine why mosquitoes are an important and essential part to local ecosystems.

We applaud Dr. Mehus, as well as Lily, Taylor, and Laura, for the important work they are doing. I could not be more excited for our students who are getting opportunities to conduct real-world research as they pursue their undergraduate degrees right here in Traill County. This is a unique and very valuable learning experience.

Several Mayville State University students are given these opportunities each year because of grant-funded projects such as this. Doubling the national average of 13.3%, 27.4% of Mayville State’s revenue is generated from grants and contracts from agencies such as INBRE. Mayville State has the highest percentage of grant funding of all North Dakota University System institutions.