UMass Amherst kicks off 30-year study of mosquitoes and their hazards

AMHERST, Mass. — University of Massachusetts Amherst is kicking off an extensive 30-year mosquito testing program to better understand the population and the viruses they carry.

Down in a basement of Fernald Hall at UMass Amherst, researchers are testing 15,000 vials of mosquitoes.

“These are bags of mosquitoes,” technician Kristina Roy explained, pointing to a row of freezers in the lab. "I believe we have samples from 2015, 2016, 2017.”

The Laboratory of Medical Zoology at UMass is teaming up with the National Science Foundation to better understand the mosquito population across the country.

The lab will test for known viruses including West Nile, Eastern Equine Encephalitis and Zika, plus any unknown viruses.

“Part of that is what pathogens or what microbes are in those mosquitoes,” Dr. Stephen Rich, with UMass Amherst explained. “We can see what might be showing up there in terms of new viruses that would pose threats to folks."

The mosquitoes are being trapped in 47 locations around the country, including one here in Massachusetts and they are all being stored in the lab at a certain temperature until they are tested.

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The ultra-cold freezers keep the mosquito samples at -80 degrees Celsius.

“We need to preserve the DNA and RNA in the mosquitoes,” said Roy. “So, the only way we are able to keep that from degrading is to keep it at extremely cold temperatures."

The testing will be done using biological safety cabinets.

“Some of the mosquito viruses have the ability to aerosolize, so we have to take extra precautions to make sure we are staying safe," Roy said.

The National Ecological Observatory network project -- or neon -- will make the data public so officials can use to make long term decisions about mosquitoes.

“It's going to be very much a value to the public health where those viruses are spreading if they are,” said Dr. Rich.

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