Taking a bite out of the Zika virus

Four people stand in a laboratory.

Virginia Tech researchers are working on ways to stamp out the Zika virus and other diseases mosquitoes carry.

By Zeke Barlow

For years, researchers in the college have worked to develop ways to fight the many diseases and problems that mosquitoes cause, from malaria to the West Nile virus.

Now they are setting their sights on the newest threat from mosquitoes — the Zika virus.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization labeled the virus a public health emergency after it was found to be spreading widely in Central and South America.

To combat the virus’ spread, researchers in the college are tackling it from a number of angles that include everything from genetics to public education.

“Mosquitoes have a long reputation for being nasty, disease-carrying insects,” said Zhijain “Jake” Tu, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry. “We are trying to keep Zika at bay and reduce the impact and reach of the virus.”

Tu is working on a way to reduce the number of female mosquitoes in a population through genetics. Females are the only ones who bite, which is how diseases are spread.

“We are testing the hypothesis that insertion of key male-determining genes into the genome of female mosquitoes could produce fertile or sterile males or simply female lethality, any of which will result in fewer females,” said Tu, who published a paper on the subject earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Maria Sharakhova and Igor Sharakhov, both in the Department of Entomology, are part of an international team of researchers that was featured in the New York Times for its work on mapping the genome of the Zika-transmitting Aedes aegypti mosquito so that better mechanisms to fight it can be developed.

Jinsong Zhu, an associate professor of biochemistry, may use that research as he develops pesticides that can target the mosquitoes.

In the meantime, Eric Day, manager of Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Insect Identification Lab, recommends using common sense to keep the bugs out of your environment.

“In yards and around businesses, they are going to be breeding in locations such as stopped-up gutters, birdbaths, old containers, tires, or any structure that collects and holds water,” he said.