By: David Fertitta
Hunched over a bowl of muddy-looking water, Dr. Rebecca Christofferson of the LSU Department of Pathobiological Sciences picks young mosquitoes out from the mix of things floating in the water. She examines for young, larval-stage mosquitoes, also known as instar, that she collected at a cemetery in Baton Rouge.
Cemeteries are perfect places to hunt for mosquitoes. These areas generally aren’t sprayed by mosquito control, and the vases that hold the flowers collect water and are perfect for mosquito eggs and larvae. Additionally, different species of mosquitoes can be found in cemeteries. Her collection of mosquitoes takes place in cemeteries both in New Orleans and Baton Rouge as a certain species can be found in New Orleans that cannot be found in Baton Rouge. It doesn’t hurt that cemeteries have fascinated Dr. Christofferson since she was a child, and she has seen some interesting things such as the grave of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans.
But why is she looking at mosquitos anyway?
Dr. Christofferson’s research looks at the transmission of infectious diseases. She studies certain viruses that can be transmitted to people by mosquitoes including Zika, dengue and chikungunya. In order to understand the transmission of these diseases, she captures wild mosquitoes and then breeds them for use in studies. A better understanding of how viruses are transmitted can help better predict potential emergence and transmission of biological public health risks.
Dr. Christofferson doesn’t spend every day capturing mosquitoes in cemeteries; most of her time is spent in a laboratory. But unusual things can happen there as well. One time when someone was cleaning blood for disposal, the vial containing the blood popped, squirting blood on a student worker’s lab coat making it “appear as if someone had just been murdered,” a student joked. But students tend to embellish: In reality, the incident was minor and did not involve infectious material. Dr. Christofferson emphasizes a safe working environment at all times.
Working with the mosquitoes can produce really interesting studies but can also provide a really interesting work environment. Apparently having a freezer filled with concentrated virus can feel “kinda creepy” from time to time. Mosquitoes only need blood in order to lay eggs, so most of their diet is raisins, which sit in the incubator with the mosquitoes. The look they have sitting in the incubator haunts a student worker so much that she can never eat a raisin again.
Using a combination of laboratory work and mathematical models, Dr. Christofferson hopes to better understand transmission of diseases between infectious and susceptible hosts also known as vector-borne diseases. Some of her recent work has analyzed how likely mosquitoes are to support replication of viruses such as dengue and chikungunya through laboratory experiments. By studying this, the likelihood of mosquitoes transmitting the virus to humans is better understood. Her work has also examined questions regarding environmental factors of events such as the 2007 West Nile Virus outbreak in Louisiana to help improve mosquito control efforts. By utilizing results from these types of studies, she then works on improving mathematical models to better predict the likelihood and severity of disease outbreaks.
Researching the transmission of mosquito-borne diseases is a pretty interesting job. Her research has important implications for society… and it all starts in a cemetery.
Christofferson, RC. Factors associated with mosquito pool positivity and the characterization of the West Nile viruses found within Louisiana during 2007. Virology Journal 7:139. DOI: 10.1186/1743-422X-7-139.
Christofferson, RC. A reevaluation of the role of Aedes albopictus in dengue transmission. Journal of Infectious Diseases 212(8):1177-9. DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiv174. Epub 2015 Mar 17.
Mores, C., RC Christofferson, SA Davidson. The role of the mosquito in a dengue human infection model. Journal of Infectious Diseases.209(2)S71-8. DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiu110.