Indiana State University Newsroom



Mosquito researcher to speak at 4 p.m. today

February 22, 2016

While concerns about the mosquito-born Zika virus may be new to many of us in the United States, a mosquito researcher and Indiana State University alumnus says it's not a new disease.

"The current notoriety gives it the appearance of being a new disease, but scientists have been studying Zika virus for over 50 years. Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes are known to transmit Zika virus," said Anthony Clemons, '05.

While Zika is typically not life-threatening to those it infects, a link to birth defects is being investigated. Health officials confirmed Feb. 9 the first Indiana case of Zika in a non-pregnant resident who recently traveled to Haiti.

"There is one especially important thing to note about the current cases in the U.S. All are classified as travel-associated -- meaning a U.S. citizen has traveled to a Zika-endemic area," Clemons said. "The CDC has two distinct terms used to describe Zika cases: travel-associated and locally acquired. No reported cases in the States are classified as locally acquired, which has a significant meaning as well."

As this year's Diversity in Science Speaker as part of the Darwin Keynote Speaker Series, Clemons will speak at 4 p.m. today (Feb. 23) in Science 214 about his journey to becoming a mosquito researcher.

"My talk will be partly about my life outside of science and partly about/in part about the early stage of my career as a scientist. There is a lengthy story behind what I have overcome and how I continue to do so," he said. "I hope to showcase through my presentation that life requires hard work and a high level of dedication, that all phases of life are about preparation. Science is the same. There are so many obstacles faced each day with research. We must push through adversity and always move in a direction that results in the life we seek to have."

Clemons' path to becoming a researcher started at Indiana State, working in the lab of biology Professor Elaina Tuttle, who is now also interim associate dean of graduate programs.

"While my research in Dr. Tuttle's lab focused on parentage in white-throated sparrows, the combination of lab experience and Dr. Tuttle's mentorship equipped me with a greater foundation of genetics," he said.

But his first curiosity about how the body works occurred as a child.

"There are two people who inspired my interest in genetics, my grandmother and a female guardian. I watched both of them struggle to manage their diabetes with medication," Clemons said. "I saw the impact diabetes had on other areas of their health and thought there must be an easier way. As a child, I always wondered what was so different about my body that I did not need to take the medication they did."

As Clemons' studies continued and his specialty narrowed, he began studying mosquitos -- a common, yet misunderstood, insect.

"Some common misconceptions include mosquitoes are attracted to sweet aromas, all mosquitoes spread disease and (they) spread HIV/AIDS, etc.," he said.

First, not all mosquitos are after your blood, he says.

"Male mosquitoes survive solely on nectar from plants. Only the female mosquito is the blood thief," Clemons said. "Female mosquitoes also feed on nectar from plants, but nutrients within animal blood are necessary for them to produce and lay eggs."

And their vicious bite? It's much more surgical, Clemons says.

"Mosquitoes lack teeth to bite. The way in which they take blood from us is similar to a needle used to draw blood during a visit to the doctor's office rather than an actual bite," he said.

With the recent attention to the Zika virus, scientists may look to other successful campaigns to combat mosquito-born illnesses.

"There have been campaigns to eradicate mosquito-transmitted diseases in the past. Malaria was successfully eradicated from the States by 1951 with efforts targeted at eliminating mosquito populations. Efforts then involved the use of insecticide spray and removal of mosquito breeding habitats," Clemons said.

But there's much to consider when thinking about eradication efforts, especially over large geographical scales, which require consistent effort, he said.

"How much would eradication efforts cost? Who will pay for the methods and the personnel needed to carry out the protocols in economically disadvantaged countries? Also, how do you get countries or certain demographics with specific beliefs to participate? They will need to be educated on the process from start to finish and how important their role will be. Understanding the ecology of the mosquitoes involved in transmission is important here. Another important consideration of eradication is the impact on the greater natural environment. How will eradication of mosquitoes effect the environment, if at all? Does this drive down the population of a predator? Does this drive down pollination of plants? Does the eradicated insect get replaced by a different insect to transmit the same disease? The questions posed do not come close to everything that must be considered to eradicate mosquitoes," Clemons said.

"When or if an eradication effort is decided, I do believe it should be a combination of control methods e.g. vaccines, insecticides, insecticide-treated bed nets, oral medication, genetically modified mosquitoes, etc."

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Media Contact: Rusty Gonser, professor, department of biology, 812-237-2395 or Rusty.Gonser@indstate.edu

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or libby.roerig@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

As this year's Diversity in Science Speaker as part of the Darwin Keynote Speaker Series, Anthony Clemons will speak at 4 p.m. today (Feb. 23) in Science 214 about his journey to becoming a mosquito researcher.

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