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Exploring genetics to combat malaria and Zika

Fralin Life Science Institute’s Vector-Borne Disease Research Group team members, from left: Zhijian “Jake” Tu, professor of biochemistry; Brantley Hall, biochemistry graduate student; Atashi Sharma, entomology graduate student; and Igor Sharakhov, associate professor of entomology

Fralin Life Science Institute’s Vector-Borne Disease Research Group team members, from left: Zhijian “Jake” Tu, professor of biochemistry; Brantley Hall, biochemistry graduate student; Atashi Sharma, entomology graduate student; and Igor Sharakhov, associate professor of entomology

The Zika virus has quickly become a major health threat, and researchers at Virginia Tech are looking for ways to curtail its spread.

The virus, which is primarily spread to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito, has been passed on to a growing number of Americans since early 2016, and the World Health Organization has declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Biochemist Zhijian “Jake”  Tu is one of several Virginia Tech researchers zeroing in on the Zika virus. Tu is studying genes that turn biting female mosquitoes into males, and he is exploring genetic strategies to stop the transmission of the Zika virus by reducing the number of female mosquitoes. Male mosquitoes do not bite and are harmless to humans, while female mosquitoes bite humans to get the blood they need for egg production.

With support from an NIH grant and building on their previous discoveries that were published in the journal Science, Tu and some of his colleagues in the Vector-Borne Disease Research Group — Zach Adelman, Jinsong Zhu, and Maria Sharakhova — are investigating the molecular mechanisms and applications of male-determining factor in Aedes agypti mosquitoes, the species that transmits Zika.

Tu, Zhu, and Igor Sharakhov also received NIH funding to study sex determination in a family of malaria-spreading mosquitoes. Working with a large international consortium, the researchers sequenced the “Y” chromosome — the genetic drive of sex determination and male fertility — in Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Although the master switch genes that govern sex determination are completely different in Aedes and Anopheles mosquitoes, the approach that targets the female mosquitoes will have broad applications in efforts to control numerous mosquito-borne infectious diseases, including old foes such as malaria and emerging threats such as Zika,”  Tu said.

While Zika had only previously been associated with mild symptoms in humans, it can produce more severe symptoms in areas where the virus has recently been introduced because populations have no pre-existing immunity. It has also been linked to a birth defect called “microcephaly,” in which infected pregnant women give birth to brain-damaged babies with abnormally small heads.

About 10 Virginia Tech researchers with expertise in the fields of disease modeling, epidemic mapping, mosquito genetics, and novel insecticides are now focusing on Zika, developing ways to predict the spread of the virus and stop it from doing more damage.

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Virginia Tech hops into the farm-to-glass craft beer movement

The Science of Brewing – Virginia Tech from VirginiaTech on Vimeo.


While the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has long been a steward of viniculture in the commonwealth, the advent of a state-of-the-art brewhouse and malting system at Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1 now allows the college to shepherd fermentation research for another lucrative market — craft beer.

The recently installed system lets students learn the latest in malting, brewing, and fermenting techniques and simultaneously fosters the university’s land-grant mission by supporting industry research in fermentation and brewing among faculty members. The announcement by Deschutes Brewery that it will anchor its East Coast location in Roanoke means the facility at Virginia Tech will also likely be integral to building industry partnerships between the university and commercial brewers.

A student spoons spent grain from the brewhouse container into a trash can while classmates look on. The professional-grade brewhouse is similar to what most craft-beer-making facilities use, but it is optimized for teaching.

A student spoons spent grain from the brewhouse container into a trash can while classmates look on. The professional-grade brewhouse is similar to what most craft-beer-making facilities use, but it is optimized for teaching.

The 250-liter, professional-grade, German-made Esau & Hueber brewhouse was designed so breweries can develop new varieties of ales and lagers while researching experimental, locally sourced ingredients without having to take their own facilities offline. The system, which can produce 66 gallons of beer in one brewing cycle, is very similar to the ones used in commercial craft brewing operations around the U.S.

The facility is also making it possible for the university to pursue global education opportunities with the Technical University of Munich, where students could put their classroom experience to use in the heart of Bavaria — a mecca for beer production.

“Our department is big on hands-on learning,” said Brian Wiersema, who oversees the brewhouse for the Department of Food Science and Technology.

The brewhouse is just one way that Virginia Tech is helping the commonwealth’s beer industry, which has an annual economic impact of more than $8 billion and contributes $2.9 billion in total annual tax receipts, according to the Beer Institute.

The brewhouse will also help make the brewing industry more environmentally friendly by developing methods to turn spent barley into plastic and fuel — which is what researchers are doing in the lab just across from the brewhouse.

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