Research on new repellents and the viruses these insects carry relies on lab animals and human volunteers. What if there was a better option?
THE WORLD’S DEADLIEST animal is a picky eater. Because they transmit viral diseases like Zika and chikungunya, and the parasites that cause malaria, mosquitoes like blood-sucking Aedes aegypti are responsible for over 700,000 deaths worldwide every year.
But in Omid Veiseh’s lab at Rice University, his team of bioengineers was struggling to get mosquitoes to eat. Typically, researchers study mosquitoe feeding by letting them bite live animals—lab mice, or grad students and postdocs who offer up their arms for science. That’s not ideal, because lab animals can be expensive and impractical to work with, and their use can raise ethical issues. Student arms don’t scale well for large tests.
In collaboration with entomologists from Tulane University, the Rice team wanted to develop a way of studying mosquito behavior without the challenges of experimenting on large numbers of animals. Their solution was something totally different: real blood encased in a lifeless hydrogel. “It feels like jello,” Veiseh says. “The mosquitoes have to bite through the jello to get to the blood.”