Mosquitoes carry several deadly pathogens that are transmitted as they feed on blood through the skin. Studying mosquito feeding behavior could illuminate countermeasures to reduce biting. While this kind of research has been around for decades, there has yet to be a compelling example of a controlled environment to test the impact of multiple variables on mosquito feeding behavior.

The future of understanding how mosquitoes transmit dangerous diseases and the most efficient insect repellents may lie in the development of hydrogels, artificial skin patches that resemble gelatin. This research is being conducted by the Universities of Rice and Tulane. Hydrogels eliminate the need for both human and animal testing to provide these answers.

Scientists have already used the hydrogel at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, where the insect produces more than 1,000 mosquitoes a week, and a 3D printer makes hydrogels. Rice University bioengineers developed the hydrogel material and machine learning software that analyzes videos of mosquito feeding to identify patterns.

According to a recent study published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, it was found that the hydrogels create a more consistent environment for mosquito testing, regardless of species. Testing showed that mosquitoes were deterred from feeding on the repellent-free hydrogels by DEET and a herbal repellent consisting of lemon and eucalyptus oils.

Dawn Wesson, associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said: “It’s a huge game changer. If we can study how they (mosquitoes) feed, what they do in the feeding process, we can better understand their potential for transmitting disease and possibly do things to prevent them from feeding.

“By efficiently producing hydrogels with different blood vessel patterns, the ability to study the mechanisms of disease transmission and test new types of repellents has increased exponentially. Each test chamber has cameras that record the feeding patterns of the mosquitoes. Artificial intelligence is used to identify common bite locations. track and sort and how long it takes to eat.”

“While mosquito saliva is thought to play a critical role in disease transmission, questions about the process remain.”

“If we can study that process in a more refined way without using animals, we might be able to interrupt transmission, which would have a very big impact. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what we can do with this product.”

Omid Veiseh, the study’s corresponding author and an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, said the hydrogel system can be scaled up to test or discover new repellents, study mosquito behavior more broadly, and open the door to testing in laboratories that previously couldn’t afford it.

“It provides a consistent and controlled method of observation,” Veiseh said. “The hope is that researchers can use that to find ways to prevent the spread of disease in the future.”

Magazine reference:

  1. Kevin Janson et al. Development of an automated biomaterial platform to study mosquito feeding behavior. Frontiers in bioengineering and biotechnology. DOI: 10.3389/fbioe.2023.1103748