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So, it’s not parasitic mind control?

PENN STATE (US) — The feeding behavior seen in mosquitoes carrying malaria may be an immune response, not the parasite’s manipulation of the insect’s activity for its own survival.

“Normally, after a female mosquito ingests a blood meal, she matures her eggs and does not take another one until the meal is digested,” says Lauren J. Cator, postdoctoral fellow in entomology at Penn State.

“If infected, however, mosquitoes will wait to eat until the parasites developing within the gut mature and migrate to the salivary glands.”


Top: Sporozoites, the infections malaria parasites found in the mosquitos salivary glands. Bottom: A mature egg cyst in a mosquito gut. (Credit: © The Read Group/Penn State)

It was thought that fasting until malaria could be transmitted was beneficial to the parasite because if the female mosquito was not feeding, she was not being swatted. The return of hunger seemed to correlate with the migration of parasites to the salivary glands. The hungrier mosquitoes are, the more they feed and the more chances to find new hosts.

Cator and colleagues used a mouse model and showed that indeed female mosquitoes behaved in this way. But, it was unclear if the malaria parasite caused the mosquitoes’ response or if something else was in play.

Justin George, a postdoctoral fellow and researcher, ran the experiments testing the mosquitoes’ sense of smell during various stages of parasite maturity and found that the mosquitoes responded to human smell much more readily once the parasites were ready to transfer to their hosts. The same was found of the meal-seeking behavior of the mosquitoes.

The researchers also looked at how the infected mosquitoes searched for meals and how they responded to the smell of humans. Although the mosquitoes used were biting mice, they also look to humans for a meal.

The researchers dissected the insects to determine the exact stage of the parasite in each mosquito they tested and what they found surprised them. They published their results in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“There were mosquitoes that took an infected blood meal, but didn’t get infected or fought off the infection,” says Cator. “These mosquitoes behaved in the same way as the infected mosquitoes.”

The researchers then injected mosquitoes with killed E. coli to see the response. While the degree of fasting and food seeking was smaller, the mosquitoes behaved in the same way. They fasted for about the same time and then went searching for a meal. Their responses to human smell and meal searching behavior also mirrored that of malaria-infected mosquitoes.

“Recently, a group from the Netherlands published in PLOS and while they were only looking at the mature parasites in the salivary glands, they found the same response to human odor,” says Cator.

“This supports that the response is a generalized response to a challenge rather than a manipulation by the malaria parasite and that our findings are probably relevant for human malaria transmission.”

The National Institutes of Health supported this work.

Source: Penn State

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  1. Rob Hooft

    More likely, then, the malaria parasite’s maturation cycle has adapted so that it is ready just before the mosquito is ready to feed. This is equally impressive….

  2. Jeremy

    It never occurred to me that mosquitoes would feed this way and in turn promote the malaria parasite. Just goes to show why this parasite has been so successful and caused so many humans such misery.

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