Mosquito buffet

It takes a special sort of researcher to sit perfectly still while a hungry insect sucks blood from your leg.

 
Exposed human skin signals a veritable feast for a hungry female mosquito.   Stephen Ausmus, USDA/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Exposed human skin signals a veritable feast for a hungry female mosquito. Stephen Ausmus, USDA/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Field Trials is a regular column in which early-career researchers recount the unexpected highs and lows of collecting data.

Catching a mosquito requires a wilful override of natural instinct: you have to let the bloodsucker bite you first. Of course, most people want to squash mosquitoes, not catch them, but malaria researchers, myself included, are not like most people. Sure, sometimes we use automated traps with light and carbon dioxide lures, but those collect far more than just mosquitoes, and it’s a pain to sift through all the flies and moths to get to the good stuff. Plainly, the simplest way to get your hands on a mosquito is to use yourself as bait.

My first time collecting mosquitoes was in the Solomon Islands, a thousand kilometres northeast of Cairns, Queensland. Each night, I went outside at dark, rolled my pants up to my knees, and restrained the impulse to slap myself when I felt the hot needle-prick of blood being siphoned from my bare leg.

Although the mosquito-transmitted malaria parasite now kills few people in the Solomons, thanks to bed nets and anti-malarial drugs, it has stubbornly resisted complete elimination. Each bite I received might have sent thousands of blood-devouring malaria parasites shooting through my veins. I tried to ignore this fact as I sat, unmoving, waiting for the initial sting of each winged syringe to subside. Instead, I reminded myself that each bug in the bag was another data point, another bit of information about the local spread of disease that could inform public health practice. It also helped that I was taking my daily prophylaxis.

If one must be savaged by mosquitoes for science, it might as well be in the Solomon Islands (left). A colleague examines mosquitoes under the microscope in the field (right).  © Nicholas Deason

If one must be savaged by mosquitoes for science, it might as well be in the Solomon Islands (left). A colleague examines mosquitoes under the microscope in the field (right). © Nicholas Deason

If I reacted too soon, the mosquito would simply fly away. So I waited a few moments. Then I flicked on my torch, quickly found the insect, and sucked it into a long rubber tube with my mouth — it was imperative to first plug the tube with cotton to avoid inhaling the mosquito. Then I moved the mosquito to a vial marked with the time, date, and location of collection. Back in the lab, I would be able to tell which mosquitoes were infected with malaria, and formulate a plan to target these species for population control. For now, there were still 12 more hours of night for collecting.

To some, offering yourself as an all-night mosquito buffet would be a dealbreaker, a hazard of the job that isn’t worth putting up with. I don’t mind it, but then again, I’d never be able to bear the smelly, bitey rodents used by so many of my colleagues studying biomedicine. It seems that every field of science demands its own peculiar form of self-sacrifice. For you, it might be holidays and weekends spent swapping cell culture media. For me, it’s a few drops of blood and a few hours of sleep.

In moments of existential reflection, I find myself feeling grateful to work in a profession with such dedicated colleagues. For each research project, there’s a scientist behind it, often a student, willing to make the sacrifices necessary to see the project through. This inspires me in my own research, and I know I could face a thousand more nights of sleepless mosquito onslaught if I had to.

Edited by Andrew Katsis