HOUSTON – (Feb. 9, 2023) – If watching animals feast on human blood for 30-plus hours isn’t your idea of fun, don’t worry. The robot can do it.
Rice University bioengineers have teamed up with tropical medicine experts from Tulane University to take some of the pain out of studying the feeding behavior of mosquitoes. The insects’ bites can spread diseases like malaria, dengue and yellow fever, but setting up experiments to examine their behavior can take a big bite out of lab budgets.
“Many mosquito experiments still rely on human volunteers and animal subjects,” said Kevin Janson, a Rice bioengineering graduate student and lead co-author of a study about the research published this week in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. Live subject testing can be expensive, and Janson said the “data can take many hours to process.”
So he and his co-authors found a way to automate the collection and processing of that data using inexpensive cameras and machine-learning software. To eliminate the need for live volunteers, their system uses patches of synthetic skin made with a 3D printer. Each patch of gelatin-like hydrogel comes complete with tiny passageways that can be filled with flowing blood.
To create the stand-ins for skin, Rice’s team, which included Janson and his Ph.D. adviser Omid Veiseh, used bioprinting techniques that were pioneered in the lab of former Rice professor Jordan Miller.
For feeding tests, as many as six of the hydrogels can be placed in a transparent plastic box about the size of a volleyball. The chambers are surrounded with cameras that point at each blood-infused hydrogel patch. Mosquitos are placed in the chamber, and the cameras record how often the insects land at each location, how long they stay, whether or not they bite, how long they feed and the like.
The system was tested at the laboratory of Dawn Wesson, a mosquito expert and associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Wesson’s research group has facilities for breeding and testing large populations of mosquitoes of varying species.
In the proof-of-concept experiments featured in the study, Wesson, Janson and co-authors used the system to examine the effectiveness of existing mosquito repellents made with either DEET or a plant-based repellent derived from the oil of lemon eucalyptus plants. Tests showed mosquitoes readily fed on hydrogels without any repellent and stayed away from hydrogel patches coated with either repellent. While DEET was slightly more effective, both tests showed each repellent deterred mosquitoes from feeding.
Veiseh, the study’s corresponding author and an assistant professor of bioengineering in Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, said the results suggest the behavioral test system can be scaled up to test or discover new repellents and to study mosquito behavior more broadly. He said the system also could open the door for testing in labs that couldn’t previously afford it.
“It provides a consistent and controlled method of observation,” Veiseh said. “The hope is researchers will be able to use that to identify ways to prevent the spread of disease in the future.”
Wesson said her lab is already using the system to study viral transmission of dengue, and she plans to use it in future studies involving malaria parasites.
“We are using the system to examine virus transmission during blood feeding,” Wesson said. “We are interested both in how viruses get taken up by uninfected mosquitoes and how viruses get deposited, along with saliva, by infected mosquitoes.
“If we had a better understanding of the fine mechanics and proteins and other molecules that are involved, we might be able to develop some means of interfering in those processes,” she said.
This research was supported by the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation.
“Development of an automated biomaterial platform to study mosquito feeding behavior” | Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology | DOI: 10.3389/fbioe.2023.1103748
Authors: Kevin D. Janson, Brendan H. Carter, Samuel B. Jameson, Jane E. de Verges, Erika S. Dalliance, Madison K. Royse, Paul Kim,1 Dawn M. Wesson, Omid Veiseh
VIDEO is available at:
DESCRIPTION: Many mosquito feeding studies still require human volunteers, but bioengineers from Rice University found a way to use technology instead. In collaboration with mosquito experts at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, they created a new system that uses automated cameras, machine-learning software and “synthetic skin” — 3D-printed hydrogels that come complete with hollow passageways for flowing blood. (Video produced by Brandon Martin/Rice University)
CAPTION: Rice University bioengineering graduate student Kevin Janson brought together bioprinted synthetic skin, automated cameras and machine-learning software to both eliminate the need for human volunteers and speed the collection and processing of data in studies of mosquito feeding behavior. (Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University)
CAPTION: Bioengineers from Rice University teamed up with tropical medicine experts from Tulane University to create a high-tech tool for studying the feeding behavior of mosquitoes that uses (top) blood-infused hydrogels from a 3D bioprinter as synthetic skin, and (bottom) automated cameras and machine-learning software to speed the collocation and processing of data. (Illustration courtesy of K. Janson/Rice University)
CAPTION: Bioengineers from Rice University and tropical medicine experts from Tulane University teamed up to create high-tech enclosures for the study of mosquito feeding behavior. Rectangular patches of 3D-printed hydrogel serve as “synthetic skin” upon which mosquitoes can land, bite and feed on blood. Patches are printed with internal passageways for flowing blood and mounted on perfusion chambers (white, right) that provide a continuous supply. Cameras (green) record what happens on each patch of synthetic skin, and a form of artificial intelligence called machine learning interprets the video and records details like how often mosquitos land, how long they stay, whether or not they bite and how long they feed. (Photo courtesy of Wesson Group/Tulane University)
CAPTION: Rice bioengineers Kevin Janson (left) and Omid Veiseh with a sample of “synthetic skin” — hydrogel constructs 3D-printed with passageways for flowing blood — like the ones used in a new device they created with tropical medicine experts at Tulane University to study the feeding behavior of mosquitoes. (Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University)
CAPTION: Rice bioengineering graduate student Kevin Janson. (Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University)
This release can be found at: https://news.rice.edu/news/2023/bite-mosquito-feeding-chamber-uses-fake-skin-real-blood
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Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology
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Development of an automated biomaterial platform to study mosquito feeding behavior
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