July 1, 2020
Dr. Joseph Mehus, chair of the Mayville State University Division of Science and Mathematics, Associate Professor of Biology, and North Dakota INBRE researcher, has secured a North Dakota INBRE (IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence) grant. Funding will be used to study mosquito biology and ecology in the Mayville 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.
Led by Dr. Mehus, the research team includes Mayville State students Laura Jacobson, Finley, N.D.; Taylor Painter, Fargo, N.D.; and Lily Pyle, Casselton, N.D. The team is working to identify the unique species of mosquitoes found within differing ecosystem types in Traill County. These ecosystems include the city of Mayville; a riparian ecosystem outside of Portland, N.D., by the Goose River; an agricultural ecosystem located in a shelterbelt between fields located west of Portland; and a farmstead ecosystem located northwest of Mayville-Portland.
“Throughout my years as a faculty member, division chair, and alumnus at Mayville State University, I have been extremely privileged to work with a bright and diverse group of students who are interested in scientific studies,” said Dr. Mehus.
The group working on this project will determine which mosquito species inhabit each of the four ecosystems, and will also monitor the mosquito species population dynamics (when they are most prevalent in those ecosystems). Researchers are collecting mosquitoes from each site, identifying them to species, and distinguishing mosquitoes that have already taken a bloodmeal. They extract the blood from the gut of the engorged (fed) mosquitoes and use DNA analysis to determine the origin of the blood (cow, dog, bird, human, etc.)
Studies such as this are crucial to applied biology, as well as epidemiological studies, making sure the public recognizes that not all mosquitoes transmit the same pathogens as West Nile virus. They can determine what mosquito species are present and identify from where the mosquitoes are primarily taking bloodmeals. They can then determine the likelihood of mosquito-borne diseases.
Mehus states, “Many people take disease transmission studies for granted, but these studies require background data so that informed decisions can be made. The research we’re conducting is critical in the Midwestern United States, which is a widely underrepresented region for mosquito research. It also offers students real-life research opportunities.”
The Mayville State team is also working to develop patterns of mosquito emergence that may impact mosquito control efforts. They are providing time to produce a photographic atlas and dichotomous key, using photographs of features on the mosquito bodies. These photos can be used by the scientific community and the general public to identify individual mosquitoes.
“The Mayville State student researchers will be able to recognize the general societal knowledge of mosquitoes and apply real scientific data to make informed decisions about topics such as population dynamics, which mosquito species are prevalent, and believe it or not, why mosquitoes are an important, essential, part of local ecosystems ... think fishing and bird populations,” said Dr. Mehus.
The grant, including direct costs, will bring nearly $75,000 of research funds to Mayville State University. Funds will provide for costs of the project, including salaries for the student researchers, and contribute the university overall.
“We are extremely fortunate to have Dr. Mehus and his research team focusing on impactful and meaningful research with the potential to provide great health-related insights in an area of limited understanding,” said Dr. Tami Such, MSU Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs. “ The collaborative efforts of Dr. Mehus and his students will foster lasting learning experiences for our faculty and students while also providing great contributions to science, research, and professional practice.”
Mehus completed his doctoral degree in biology with interest in vector transmitted diseases at the University of North Dakota in 2013. There, he worked with acclaimed medical entomologist and vector-borne parasitologist, Dr. Jefferson Vaughan. He also spent time working with Dr. Vasyl Tkach, a widely renowned parasitologist who has traveled the world researching parasites that inhabit numerous vertebrate hosts. Dr. Mehus is a 2004 graduate of the Mayville State University biology program.
Top: Taylor Painter, Mayville State allied health major and science enthusiast, prepares for a day of collecting mosquitoes.
Second: Lily Pyle (fore) and Taylor Painter use Centers for Disease Control modified aspirator machines to “vacuum up” mosquitoes resting in vegetation.
Third: Lily Pyle, Mayville State biology major and Comet volleyball player, shows her muscles as she transports a carbon dioxide tank to the study site.
Bottom: Laura Jacobson, who is pursuing majors in biology and fitness & wellness, is identifying and imaging Aedes vexans, an engorged (fed) female mosquito.