What’s the Buzz?

by deirdre Kelly

photography by Sofie Kirk

Scientists at York University are working on mosquito neuropeptides – small, protein-like signalling molecules produced by the nervous system – seeking to uncover their functional roles and determine if they can be targeted to control mosquitoes and reduce the spread of vector-borne diseases affecting millions of people every year.

After pinpointing a hormone unique to the deadly bloodsucking insects, York researchers say they are closer to developing strategies for disrupting the hormonal control of mosquito reproduction with the aim of reducing mosquito populations and the pathogens they carry. 

“One of the leading causes of death in the world is mosquitoes, and if we better understand their underlying physiology, researchers could more effectively reduce their numbers and eliminate the number of fatalities associated with them,” says Azizia Wahedi (BSc ’16, MSc ’18), who studied mosquitoes – getting up close and personal with the world’s deadliest of insects – during her time at York. 

Earning her a prestigious Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) Thesis & Dissertation Prize in 2019, Wahedi discovered the receptor of an important neuropeptide, ACP, in the Zika and dengue disease-vector mosquito Aedes aegypti for her master’s thesis, providing the first meaningful step toward deducing a function for this insect-specific neuropeptide signalling system. 

Most of her research took place at the lab overseen by Wahedi’s then–thesis advisor, York Faculty of Science biology Professor Jean-Paul Paluzzi. Paluzzi’s own research is focused on unravelling the complex neuroendocrine regulatory mechanisms that promote feeding, signal satiety and govern homeostasis, along with regulating the growth and development of tissues involved in reproductive behaviours in bloodsucking arthropods like mosquitoes and ticks. 

His lab literally crawls with the creatures he and his students study, much to the delight of Wahedi, today a researcher at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital. “They were my babies,” she says of the hundreds of lab-reared uninfected bugs she doted on as they buzzed about in net-covered cages on the Keele Campus. Before knocking them out with carbon dioxide, Wahedi dutifully tended to her mosquitoes with daily feedings of blood. 

Watching them grow plump, she developed a fondness for the dreaded insects – even as they stung her. Those that died she then dissected, using precision forceps and high-powered microscopes to isolate the tissue and organ samples that were required for her scientific research.  

“The focus on entomology at York is great,” Wahedi says. “We’re highlighting how the study of insects can benefit the world.”   

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