We all know how annoying a mosquito bite can be, but do you also know that mosquitoes are responsible for spreading diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, zika and dengue, which kill more than one million people worldwide each year? Just last week, on August 20, World Mosquito Day marked the anniversary of the 1897 discovery that mosquitoes transmit the parasite that causes malaria. Inside her lab at Indiana University School of Medicine in South Bend, Professor Molly Duman Scheel is hard at work developing ways to eliminate mosquitoes, specifically female mosquitoes during their development, because they are the ones who bite humans and spread disease. Scheel’s team uses a modified baker’s yeast to make special types of RNA that turn off mosquito genes. When mosquito larvae consume the yeast, Scheel says, it turns off genes required for the insect’s survival, but does not impact humans or other non-target organisms, such as butterflies. Scheel says her research has the potential to aid other research about mosquitoes, particularly several new mosquito control strategies that require mass release of only male mosquitoes. Her team is also working on efforts to scale up the modified yeast production so it will be suitable for commercial production and global deployment. Scheel says they are working with collaborators to develop commercial formulations that are stable during shipment, as well as in the field when the yeast is exposed to tropical climates. Although the idea of eliminating pesky mosquitoes might sound good to some, Scheel says, it will be hard to completely eliminate them. Most likely, her research will help to reduce the number of mosquitoes in places where there are ongoing outbreaks. Scheel says eliminating mosquitoes is not likely to impact other animals that eat mosquitoes, which are invasive species in many parts of the world. Although invasive species can still become important parts of ecosystems, Scheel says, animals that eat the mosquitoes have other sources of food. Therefore it is likely that removing mosquitoes would have positive benefits for human health and few, if any, impacts on other organisms, Scheel says.
In other news, many college freshmen are arriving on campuses all across the country after having experienced a disrupted high school experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent results from the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement, administered by IU’s Center for Postsecondary Research, offers insight into more than 35,000 incoming students’ high school experiences and their expectations for the coming year. IU researchers Jim Cole and Jillian Kinzie found that incoming students experienced a variety of learning environments during their senior year of high school, with about 60 percent of them engaged in hybrid instruction, 26 percent in classes entirely online, and 14 percent totally in-person. However, the results varied by racial and ethnic identity, which Cole and Kinzie say suggests the need to provide more tailored resources and outreach to diverse groups of students. The study found that the majority of incoming students across racial and ethnic identity groups were optimistic about their first year of college, and 76 percent did not believe that COVID-19 would interfere much with their college plans. However, Cole and Kinzie say, more recent data from August shows a drop in student optimism, which could be influenced by the spread of the Delta variant or a reflection of normal worries near the start of the school year. The study also found that more than half of students surveyed had substantial increases in levels of depression, hopelessness and loneliness due to COVID-19. And researchers say the mental and emotional exhaustion appears to be linked with expectations of academic difficulty. Of those students who expected high levels of academic difficulty, 70 percent reported substantial mental and emotional exhaustion. Comparatively, of the students who expected low levels of academic difficulty, only 42 percent reported substantial mental and emotional exhaustion. Cole and Kinzie say the combination of exhaustion and expected academic difficulty makes it imperative for colleges and universities to implement widespread, early and frequent check-ins by faculty, academic advisors and student life staff to offer necessary support and intervention to help students be successful in their first year of college.