Mosquito's blood can reveal disease

June 09, 2005, vol. 33, no. 4
By Marianne Meadahl

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Next time you squash a mosquito, consider the wealth of information contained in the resulting blood spot. SFU biologist Bruce Leighton found that blood consumed by mosquitoes could be useful in providing evidence of disease, in the form of antibodies, in wildlife, particularly species that are endangered or difficult to capture for blood sampling.

In a laboratory study for his master's thesis in pest management, Leighton fed mosquitoes on an artificial feeder which contained known amounts of specific antibody in blood, then examined the mosquitoes' intake to see how reliably the antibodies could be detected over time, at varying temperatures and concentration.

“The results show that mosquitoes can be good indicators of disease problems,” says Leighton. The next step is to do field tests. “We need to create a good field collection system so the data can be statistically valuable. But this is a good start.”

The endangered orangutans of southeast Asia are a good example of where this technique would be useful. “It's difficult to get blood samples from wild orangutans living high in the forest canopy,” says Leighton. “It may be easier to trap blood-fed canopy mosquitoes and test them for orangutan antibodies. Once it is established that the blood is from the mammal in question we can test for antibodies specific to disease agents that may be infecting them.”

Monitoring disease in B.C.'s coastal seals and sea lions has also been difficult. A mosquito species that breeds in the high tide pools in southern B.C. is known to fly out to sea and may be useful in providing marine mammal blood samples, Leighton notes.

Leighton, who works as SFU's aquatic technician, has also spent the last four years investigating the first known marine outbreak of swimmer's itch at Crescent Beach. He hopes to publish the results of his study of the deadly effects of a parasite on the West Coast sea star population, later this year.

Leighton is also being recognized for his contributions to pest management as the recipient of the Thelma Finlayson award, named after the retired biology professor who helped establish the program.

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