McIntosh Grad Bites Back

Wed, 08/12/2009 - 9:26am
By: The Citizen

For twelve weeks this summer, 2006 McIntosh High School graduate Ashleigh Murphy got down and dirty with one of the South's most notorious pests.

"Mosquitoes can leave more than just itchy red bites," Murphy explains. "They are responsible for transmitting a variety of dangerous diseases. More than one million people a year lose their lives to diseases received from mosquito bites, making mosquitoes the most lethal living creatures on the planet."

Dr. Roger Miesfeld of the University of Arizona directs a lab dedicated to preventing the continued spread of disease likes West Nile virus, malaria and Dengue fever, an infection rapidly spreading throughout Central America and into the Southern United States. "The goal of our lab is to develop mosquito-selective metabolic inhibitors that block blood meal metabolism and can be used to control mosquito populations in areas of high pathogen transmission," Dr. Miesfeld writes. "We are focusing our efforts on inhibiting mosquito enzymes that are required for blood protein digestion, and those involved in synthesizing lipids for egg production and energy storage."

Under the direction of Postdoctoral researcher Dr. Jun Isoe and graduate student Amy Alabaster, Murphy spent the summer studying how mosquitoes digest the blood they suck from their victims. Preventing new generations of biters from being born will decrease the total population of mosquitoes available to catch and transmit disease, causing a drop in the number of human infections.

"My role in the project," Murphy continues, "was to track a few key enzymes in producing eggs from the blood meal. I compared enzyme quantities present in normal mosquitoes versus mosquitoes injected with a molecule which stops the mosquito from producing eggs."

The development of an insecticide based on such a molecule would only affect the process of using blood to make eggs, a process which only mosquitoes possess. This insecticide would affect only mosquitoes and be safe for use around humans and animals, a major difference from other pesticides designed to kill mosquitoes which can also cause health problems in humans and can damage the surrounding environment. The Research Experience for Undergraduates, a program funded by the National Science Foundation, sponsors college students to travel and conduct research at different institutions around the country.

Murphy, now a senior at Mercer University, had this to say about the program: "Working in the lab this summer was a great experience. I got to live in a new place, meet new people and learn how a professional research laboratory works."

Murphy plans to attend graduate school and pursue biology research as a career.

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