UT-Austin researchers develop portable disease-carrying mosquito detector

Annie L. Zhang

A smartphone camera, a chemical test and a box with a mushed mosquito: That’s all UT researchers need to detect if a mosquito is of a deadly disease-carrying species called Aedes aegypti.

Sanchita Bhadra, research associate in the Department of Molecular Biosciences, and her team developed a portable diagnostic tool to better track mosquito-borne disease. They published their findings in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. The work was also done in collaboration with the DIY Diagnostics stream through the Freshman Research Initiative.

According to the study, the tool serves two purposes: to identify an Aedes aegypti mosquito, the primary species associated with the spread of the Zika virus, and to determine if the mosquito is affected by Wolbachia, a bacteria that can reduce the spread of viral diseases in the species, according to the World Mosquito Program.

“There were quite a number of studies being funded on how to artificially infect mosquitoes with Wolbachia and release them into the wild, but there was really no good way to test these mosquitoes in the field,” Bhadra said.

One of the most important features about the tool is its accessibility, said Nicole Pederson, a third-year pharmacy graduate student and former member of the DIY Diagnostics stream. She said it was designed to be user-friendly and inexpensive, so anyone with the need to use the diagnostic tool can do so anywhere.

“A lot of the people who are in places where these diseases are more prevalent might not have the scientific background to do some of the lab-heavier techniques usually associated with (the detection),” Pederson said. “But, now people can use this tool even without that background, and that gives them the ability to use (the surveillance information) too.”

According to Bhadra, the chemical test was designed within the tool to identify specific gene sequences in the mosquito, and once that sequence was identified, it would be amplified, or copied. The sequence would produce a fluorescence that could indicate a positive or negative test result, and the smartphone camera would capture a digital image of the fluorescent result for further analysis.

Most of the mosquitoes used in the study were lab-grown, but in their field studies, the mosquitoes captured were from the Galveston area, according to Bhadra. The mosquitoes could also be tested in “pools,” meaning they could also test for the results in larger sample groups. Pederson said that testing in pools is a better way to track disease across multiple mosquito species.

“By being able to detect and monitor these populations with Wolbachia, we can also follow which populations are not transmitting these deadly diseases,”
Pederson said.

While the current detector cannot test to see if a mosquito itself carries any deadly diseases, such as the Zika virus, dengue or malaria, Bhadra and her team are already working on that.

“This is a test platform where we can very easily make changes to the chemical reaction to identify what we want it to identify,” Bhadra said. “Now that we’ve worked out the process, it’s very easy to rapidly prototype the assay for any other agent that we want to look at.”