USF Sarasota-Manatee lab looks to control mosquito population

Interns Zach Nemitz and Ruby Ramos take turns looking at bacteria through a microscope.

Interns Zach Nemitz and Ruby Ramos take turns looking at bacteria through a microscope.

SARASOTA, Fla. (May 12, 2015) – Dr. Aparna Telang’s research lab is taking shape after the modular building arrived in late January at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s north parking lot.

Two incubators, a chemical hood, a centrifuge and other equipment is already in place and operational, and on Monday two of Dr. Telang’s four student-interns began their training.

More help, in the form of 100 mosquitos and 200 mosquito eggs – or test subjects – is due to arrive Wednesday.

The Biology Research Laboratory where Dr. Telang will conduct her studies packs a lot of punch in its 600 square feet.

It will need to as the focus shifts to the all-important work that lies ahead over the next two years: Dr. Telang and her interns will study how parasites live inside mosquitos and why these hosts remain immune to the deadly diseases they transmit to humans.

With the arrival in Florida of dengue fever in 2009 and West Nile virus in 2001, researchers statewide are intent to discover new ways to eradicate, or at least control, these and other mosquito-borne diseases.

Four interns – sophomore Ruby Ramos, junior Robert “Zach” Nemitz and seniors Nicole Carswell and Carissa Santiago – will assist in running tests, dissecting mosquitos and examining their miniscule anatomies for signs of bacteria, both benign and harmful.

First up is safety training and instruction on the lab’s delicate scientific equipment, including the incubator, or growth chamber as it’s called, where the students will cultivate mosquito colonies in a temperature- and light-controlled environment.

Getting the interns up to speed will take weeks, Dr. Telang said. However, she takes it all in stride, saying the effort is part of the responsibility scientists must show to their successors.

“None of the students will have all the necessary skills when they come into my lab. I will have to train them on many techniques,” she said. “Initially, it’s a kind of investment, my time and expertise to train them in the hope that they become independent with their research.

“In the sciences, it is considered a part of our responsibility to raise the next generation of scientists. It’s part of our culture,” she said.

That next generation is apt to spend several months, and possibly much of the upcoming school year, ensconced inside Dr. Telang’s lab peering through microscopes and working with delicate dissecting instruments. Dr. Telang said she hopes the younger students, Ramos and Nemitz, remain even longer.

The students consider themselves fortunate to be assisting her.

“I want to stick with Dr. Telang as many summers as she needs me,” said Ramos, who aims to become a medical doctor specializing in infectious diseases. “This is very valuable experience. It can really help on my CV (curriculum vitae),” or resume.

Santiago, also hoping to become a doctor, said it’s important to show prospective medical schools that, “you have research experience and know what you’re doing in a lab and have group-think skills to be a part of a project from start to finish.”

Santiago said part of her job will involve dissecting mosquitos to examine benign microbes and their function within their hosts. Her work will have her collaborating with Nemitz, Dr. Telang and with Dr. Kim Ritchie, a microbiologist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

Ramos will examine mosquito immune responses to parasitic worms.

Carswell will have her own unique role: She’ll work with mosquito control officers from Sarasota and Manatee counties to examine mosquito and bird transmissions of West Nile Virus and its equally virulent cousin, St. Louis Encephalitis Virus (SLEV), which is more common in Florida.

Specifically, she’ll collect “sentinel” chickens’ feces samples to determine whether the birds carry the viruses.

Nemitz said he’s looking forward to the research process, in his case growing and “staining” bacteria with fluorescent markers so they can be observed later within a mosquito’s organs.

“I’ve always liked science in general,” he said. “Here, I’ll get to see things I normally wouldn’t see in a classroom.”

Dr. Telang said she hopes to publish her findings in about two years.

The best outcome: to identify a strain of symbiotic bacteria on which mosquitos depend and can be exploited to control their population levels.

“A lot of the time, the research is about how to knock their numbers down,” Dr. Telang said. “The reason mosquitos are so prevalent is they are good at surviving. They are extremely good at what they do, which is to survive and reproduce. The best we can hope for is how to figure out newer, lasting ways to reduce their numbers.”