Evolutionary study sheds light on the relationship between mosquitoes and their hosts

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Researchers at North Carolina State University, in collaboration with global partners, have successfully mapped the evolutionary history of mosquitoes, a significant breakthrough in understanding their behavior, particularly in relation to their choice of hosts, blood-feeding habits, and disease transmission. The findings of this study will enable researchers to make more accurate predictions regarding disease transmission and gain insights into the factors that make certain mosquitoes more effective carriers of diseases compared to others.

According to Dr. Brian Wiegmann, the William Neal Reynolds Professor of Entomology at NC State and corresponding author of the paper published in Nature Communications, the study indicates that mosquito evolution over the past 200 million years has closely mirrored the Earth’s history, with changes in land masses and host organisms playing a crucial role.

This ongoing project focuses on compiling a large database by mining academic literature for published records documenting the sources of blood mosquitoes consume, ranging from different animal species to humans. The objective is to link the information obtained from the family tree, or phylogenetic tree, with the broader narrative of life on Earth, including geological, climatic, and organismal history, in order to infer various aspects of mosquito biology.

While gathering as much published information as possible about mosquitoes, the researchers also utilized advanced genomic sequencing techniques to extract genetic data from mosquito specimens that are several decades old and preserved in insect collections. These techniques enabled them to capture a wealth of genetic information from small fragments of the mosquitoes’ genomes.

Dr. Wiegmann emphasized the significance of this extensive research effort, as it allows for a better understanding of the incredible diversity of mosquitoes worldwide. Furthermore, with the current capabilities to rapidly and comprehensively sample genetic information, the time was opportune for a comprehensive exploration of the evolutionary context in which disease vectors and well-known mosquito species have evolved.

By combining genetic and published data, the researchers made several noteworthy discoveries, which can be examined in light of existing patterns and distributions. One key finding is that mosquitoes are an ancient group, with an estimated age of approximately 217 million years, and they likely originated in South America when it was still part of a single land mass called Gondwana.

The study also confirms that blood-feeding behavior in mosquitoes evolved early in their evolutionary history, even before certain vertebrate groups, such as mammals and birds, appeared on Earth. Mosquitoes evolved alongside these groups, developing specialized mouthparts resembling hypodermic needles to feed on blood, as females require an adequate protein supply to produce mature eggs.

Although evidence of mosquito gut contents from hundreds of millions of years ago is not available, it is believed that dinosaurs served as blood meals for mosquitoes. Before mammals became the predominant hosts on Earth, mosquitoes likely fed on amphibians and subsequently transitioned to reptiles and birds as these groups flourished during the Jurassic Era, spanning from approximately 200 million to 145 million years ago.

Dr. Wiegmann further stated that the research on the mosquito family tree will continue, providing insights into the adaptations that have led to certain mosquitoes becoming important vectors of diseases. By understanding the evolutionary pathways that have facilitated the success of disease-carrying mosquitoes, researchers can gain valuable knowledge on how similar patterns may arise, allowing for better predictions regarding mosquito-borne virus transmission and potential interventions to mitigate the impact of these diseases.

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  1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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