Dr. Laura Duvall Has Been Named a 2021 Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences

Duvall's research focuses on the neural and molecular pathways that regulate biting and mating in mosquitoes.

By
Eve Glasberg
June 15, 2021

Dr. Laura Duvall, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, has been selected to join the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Along with 21 other early career scientists, Dr. Duvall will receive funding over the next four years to investigate questions surrounding human health and disease.

“The Pew Charitable Trusts has a history of supporting talented researchers who are committed to understanding intricate scientific processes,” said Susan K. Urahn, Pew’s president and CEO. “Our newest cohort of scholars is joining a large community of accomplished scientists who are dedicated to uncovering new solutions to significant biomedical challenges.”

This year’s class includes scientists exploring the genetic evolution of cancer cells, how regulatory RNAs influence embryonic development, and how animals select specific types of foods for their nutritional needs. The Duvall Lab will characterize the neural and molecular pathways that regulate biting and mating in mosquitoes.

Dr. Duvall discusses her research with Columbia News, along with how climate change affects mosquito behavior and the threat to humans.

Q. Of the many ongoing projects in your lab, what specifically are you working on that is being recognized by the Pew Charitable Trusts?

A. The research in my lab focuses on understanding how mosquitoes and other blood-feeders regulate biting and mating behaviors. One of the big questions we’re focusing on in this project is: What are the signaling pathways and anatomical circuits that control female mosquitoes’ drive to find and bite humans? We know that hardwired neural circuits respond to sensory cues like human body odor and carbon dioxide to indicate that a human host is nearby, but we also know that neuromodulators shape when and how these behaviors are performed.

Female mosquitoes hunt humans only when they require a blood meal. Afterwards, they completely suppress their drive to bite while they use the blood nutrients to develop eggs. By studying the Zika vector species, Aedes aegypti, we previously identified a receptor that regulates the mosquito’s appetite, and identified drugs that activate this receptor and block her drive to bite.

Our next steps are to understand how this receptor changes the female mosquito’s behavior: Does she actually become less sensitive to human-associated cues while she’s developing her eggs, or is she just less interested in feeding? We know that other blood feeders—like the species of mosquitoes that spread malaria and West Nile virus, and ticks—also have similar receptors, and we’re testing our findings in those species to see if their drive to blood feed is regulated in the same way. Using genetic and pharmacological tools, we hope to find a way to “turn off” their appetite for biting humans.

Q. How does climate change affect mosquito behavior and the threat to humans?

A. Environmental factors like climate change, urbanization, and travel affect the geographical range of mosquitoes and the diseases that they can transmit. Aedes mosquitoes are predicted to expand the territory they can inhabit, and this puts more people at risk for diseases like Zika, chikungunya, and dengue fever. Diseases that we think of as tropical are already present in places like Florida and Texas. As they continue to expand northward in the United States, we’ll likely see outbreaks in areas that have become newly habitable for these mosquitoes.

Q.  Is your lab working on other ways to prevent disease transmission from mosquitoes to humans?

A. As a basic science research lab, one of our main goals is to make discoveries about how the brain regulates behavior, but beyond the significance of this work to neuroscience, these feeding behaviors play important roles in disease transmission. The more we understand about how mosquitoes regulate their drive to bite humans and blood feed, the more targets we’ll have to weaponize against them. These mosquitoes are amazingly well-equipped at living near humans and developing resistance to insecticides, so there has been high demand for new approaches—including some of the genetic approaches that are currently being tested.

By exploiting the mosquito’s own regulatory pathways, our research could be thought of as “behavioral control.” This complementary strategy could be very effective because preventing mosquito bites disrupts the spread of all of the pathogens that they can transmit. Mosquito-borne diseases pose increasing threats to global public health, and our work will provide new targets to directly disrupt the behaviors that contribute to the spread of disease.