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Welcome to the Parasites and Vectors Division blog. Let me introduce our group and the superbugs and parasites we work on (WARNING NASTY IMAGES, strong stomachs required).

 

The world is full of amazing animals, but there are some that have a more sinister side. Our scientists and curators look at insects, arachnids and worms that live on or inside other animals, including people.

 

Blue bottle fly - Calliphora vicina - forensic entomology.jpgThe blue bottle fly, Calliphora vicina colonizes corpses and is used in forensic entomology to help crime scene investigators determine time of death.

 

I’ll be using this blog to write about what we do, why we study these complex organisms and how we collect data in the field and in our laboratories.

 

I’ll reveal more about the grisly creatures we study later, but for now here’s an introduction to the main players:

 

  • Flies can cause the horrible disease myiasis, but are also helping scientists to determine crucial information at crime scenes through forensic entomology.
  • Mosquitos have been called the world’s most dangerous animal, carrying diseases like malaria and viruses like dengue.
  • Ticks and mites (Acari) can cause huge damage to crops, and spread diseases such as Lyme disease and babesiosis.
  • Blood flukes are parasitic worms that cause schistosomiasis, a disease affecting over 200 million people worldwide. Museum scientists are studying these worms to help affected countries control schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease. More about this in my next post!
  • Flatworms can be parasitic monsters, but their amazing capacity for regenerative growth could inspire regenerative medicine techniques and anti-aging therapies in humans.

 

Myiasis .jpgMyiasis wounds on sheep in Hungary produced by the spotted flesh ply or screwworm fly (Photo credit Alexander Hall).

 

We use a range of DNA techniques, from mitogenomics to next generation sequencing to investigate, describe and understand parasitic worms. None of our work would be possible without the Museum’s extensive parasite and vector collections. Erica McAlister curates one of these, the diptera (true flies) collection, which you can read more about on her (very entertaining) blog.

 

schisto_venous_system_cattle.jpgDon't let size fool you; these tiny blood flukes living in the blood veins of animals cause a debilitating disease called Schistosomiasis.


That’s it for now but check back soon - I’ll be setting off to Tanzania next week in search of blood flukes and will surely have some stories to tell from the field!

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So it is that time of year again when we head out on fieldwork - looking for flies up and down the country, in bogs, and woodlands, and wet meadows trying to seek out the often elusive individuals. For the last couple of years, the Natural History Museum has been working in collaboration with the Health Protection Authority on a specific project collecting mosquitoes and we are finding all sorts of interesting things. New records for species distributions have been determined and thanks to some molecular anaylses we are figuring out some difficult taxonomic questions.

 

So off we head, boots on, silly fieldwork appartus strapped to our backs (or rather just back as only one was used). However, as well as the working with mosquito adults for both morphological and molecular analyses, we are also going out to look for the larvae.

 

Mosquito larvae are cute, and active, and fast…We use a very hi-tech piece of equipment to catch the little blitters (a plastic pan on a long pole…..) and then dip away in favourable habitats

 

shelley and erica collecting.jpg

Above is Shelley supporting the oh so fashionable Backpack aspirator whilst I am modelly the latest in dipping technology...

 

We were back in Hurcott Wood (it was a little warmer since the last time I was there recording for the BBC) after a very successful trip there last year. Alex Vaux, from HPA joined us (i.e. Shelley Cook, Ralph Harbach and I) and we pottered (or in some cases pootered albeit on a large scale with the back pack aspirator) round trying to catch the early adults or the larvae.

 

We couldn’t find any adults but we did get some larvae and some big ones at that! These were ferried back to London in little plastic packs alongside some spare pond water.  Once back in the museum we set up the little ones in a basement lab through very secure doors which makes the place feel more like a maximum security prison than research labs

 

They are set up initially in bowls but as they develop they get their individual rearing tubes - nothing but the best for them. We do this as we need to collect their larval and pupal skins as they develop. For mosquito taxonomy we use the 4th Instar stage of the larva, the pupal skin and the adult.

 

photo.JPG

The 'rearing lab'

 

The mosquitoes are separated into two subfamilies, the Anophelines and the Culicines. The Anophelines lie flat under the surface to the water and generally feed from there whilst the Culicines have a long funnel through which they obtain air and dangle down into the water column (see below). For them we place the food on the bottom. The special diet upon which they feed is fish food – but you have to get the fine stuff otherwise it is too large for their mouths

 

mossi rearing 3. jpg

Look at the little cuties dangling down...

 

There are four of us in the museum checking up on them, we even have a doodle calendar to make sure that they don’t get forgotten due to our hectic lives . Gradually we are rearing them through although it has not been plain sailing, nope; there has been heartache as well as joy.

 

A lot of the larger individuals, which we think were Culiseta (they were big – almost 6mm!!!!) died straight away – not a good start. Then some of the larvae died when they were transferred to their individual tubes – again not good. Some of them died whilst they were emerging from their pupal case – that was probably the saddest – all that struggle and then trapped, not good.

 

mossi rearing 2.JPG

They nearly made it....

 

But luckily some made it (although we then killed them). But they did get to live for 24 hours first as we had to wait for their genitalia to rotate……

 

And here are some of the successful adults, with their legs in the air like they just don't care!!!

 

mossi rearing. jpg

 

So for these we have larval skins, pupal skins and the pinned adults. This is important as there are many species groups in mosquito taxonomy so by studying all the different stages as well as sequencing their DNA we can hopefully begin to unravel some of these mysteries. And it is one of the few times that I get to feel maternal….

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It's busy out there, very busy! It does not help that it is raining. But it is also very busy in here! At the moment I have two work experience students working in one of the cocoon ends sorting some British material and hopefully extracting localities data to be used for UK recording schemes. Two of our regular visitors have just turned up and they are straight away into recurating their group that they are working on (Agromyzidae). And I am about to spend the afternoon identifying British mosquitoes. We have to quickly identify the mosquitoes that we sampled last year that have been in the deep freeze ever since. This will involve us identifying them on blocks of dry ice or freezer blocks to ensure that there is no degradation of any virus DNA that the mosquitoes may have. I believe that we are going to have cold fingers

 

There was a meeting here last week for European Mycetophilidae several  workers. It is always nice to meet the people whom you have been corresponding with for a while and read their papers. Its a good opportunity to swap material and receive back material. One of them has donated some fungus gnats from Japan and I have spent the whole morning so far trying to enter all of the new data onto our database. I have only entered four of the 13!! oh well. The database is a vast and complex interactive entity (it is living!!) which is full of oddities that were migrated across when we finally combined all of the many different museum databases. This means though that we are cleaning constantly and so even the small entries may take time due to all of the different modules (i.e. the taxonomy, the collection event, the site where collected) that need to be edited. When you look at the online database you will find many mistakes- we are trying to clean but we have millions of entries .

 

We had another Dinosnores at the weekend and I think that it went well. It was very different this time as I was by myself and I had no one else to abuse on stage! I don't think that the first talk was as good but i loved the next two. The kids were really quite knowledgeable and this always helps. We had some live stick insects this times as well, the Anisomorpha, which exude and sometimes squirt a nasty toxin. They didn't do anything this time though... The male was attached to the adolescent female waiting for her to mature - a strategy that I am glad that most humans don't employ.....

 

And I am doing a Nature live tomorrow on my favourite insect (fly ) I have a soft spot for the robber flies but I keep getting sidetracked. I will get out some of the new material from French Guiana as i think that people will be amazed at how much variety there is in a sample.

 

Oh and I have a very large number of volunteers for my new material .

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I have titled this blog so as at the moment it really does feel like it! There are virtually no science staff (most are on holiday) but 5 million visitors!! The Museum is exceptionally busy at the moment and the fact that it has not stopped raining has compounded the problem!! The public are queuing around the ice rink!! Just getting through the public galleries is an ordeal!! I feel nicely tucked away in my bay just listening to the few other entomologists typing away . I have been reading papers on the use of museum specimens for DNA analyses and am now itching to get back into the lab and have another go at extracting. We are working on some UK mosquitoes at the moment that were collected from our various fieldtrips this year that have been stored in the freezer to prevent the DNA degrading.


I have spent the morning in the Specimen Preparation area in the Cocoon. I have been waiting to properly get my hands dirty with the material that came from French Guyana and so though that this would be the perfect opportunity. For some reason there are an awful lot of horse flies. Several of us have commented on this fact that when using malaise traps (tent like trap for catching small flying insects) there is always an abundance of them. The speaker system was not working though and I spent a long time scribbling down things for the public. These samples have an abundance of dung beetles, cockroaches, hymenoptera of all sorts, bark beetles and of course my babies! As well as all of the horse flies (and some long tongued ones!) and the robberflies there are also some very pretty soldier flies . I cant decide which is better - knowing that there is loads of new, undescribed species or being able to say what is in there already. It's all terribly exciting - I will calm down soon!

 

I was trying to write down little facts for the public as I sorted. I am not sure that they were happy about some of them. There are the Phorid flies of which some burrow down into coffins whilst others decapitate ants! Then there were the assassin bugs of which some are blood feeders on us! There are the dung beetles where i described my fieldwork of collecting them using various different types of dung....

 

...I will have to change the alcohol that the sample arrived in though as after two hours i was a little bit vacant to say the least!

 

This afternoon i am writing a case study for sampling insects in Costa Rica for a book to be published later on in the year. I have written a draft already but it needs to be more concise. I see an afternoon of red pen!

 

I am preparing myself for the sleepover as well. I have been revising my knowledge of all arthropods that can harm, maim, cause death etc. I will be such a hit at the New Years Eve party I am going to!

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It is Monday morning, and I am tired! Not the best way to start the week but then again last week was a week from Hell. I was staying too late everynight and by Friday has lost most of my powers of speech (most unusual for those who know me and luckily recovered by the recuperative ability of London Pride..)

 

It started off ok. We had completed some fieldwork down on the Isle of Grain in Kent. This is a fantastic place to collect mosquitoes and we have been sampling here for a long time. It is a desolate place (fantastic for birds though) which has a post-apocalyptic feel about it.

 

My two companions have not been to Kent before and their are not sure that it being named the Garden of England is not totally apt! (for this part anyway!!) But We went off looking around all the abandoned bunkers, jumping over ditches with the back pack aspirators on, searching for the resting adults. We did not have much luck to start with as the day was very windy and so not very conducive to any slightly exposed resting populations. However, we did come across the mother load (technical term...) in one bunker that involved a lot of manoeuvring around very sharp vegetation. I have to say sampling in a bunker that reeks of urine is not the most pleasant... There were several species resting together and we are hoping to turn up something interesting. They are now all back in the lab in -80oC freezers waiting for us to morphologically and molecularly identify them. There will be a lot of lab work coming up.

 

But the fun that has been occupying us in collections has been the move and on last Monday things become hectic for two reasons; Firstly we have to get a synoptic collection of Diptera into the new Angela Marmont Centre by the 28th of November as this is when we are hosting the Dipterists Forum AGM at the NHM; and secondly, the whole collections move for Diptera starts today...I am crossing everything...

 

So I will start with the synoptic collection. What we are doing here is having a selection from the British collection of up to five flies from each species described from the UK. We have at the moment a separate British collection and after printing off and slicing up over 7000 labels we are making up new drawers of these specimens. These will then be available for the general public to consult. This project has been beset by problems with drawers and trays not being available for one reason and another for ages. Finally on monday though we started moving specimens into the new drawers and there have been many late nights in the collection areas trying to move as many specimens as possible before the move started this monday. The completed drawers look great though and it is now possible to see where the wholes in the british collection are and try and persuade people do donate us material to fill these gaps. .Below we have the new drawers ready for the specimens to go into.

Synoptic drawers.JPG

 

As to the collection move, my boss has spent weeks ensuring that the collection move plans are completely accurate for the company that have been hired to move the drawers from their temporary home into the cocoon. We have moved things around so that the collection just follows the numbering system of one of the most used catalogues. This is not taxonomically accurate nowadays due to reviews, taxonomic changes etc that are happening at a fast rate in Diptera (there are a lot of described species that we were/still unsure about they phylogenetic relationships and a lot more yet to be described) it was decided that this would be the simplest. We at least now exactly where everything is. The drawers at the moment though are covered with labels, colour coded and instructions plastered on them. As I said at the beginning I have everything crossed as these are my babies that they are moving. Bye bye old cabinets and room

 

open cabinats.jpg

Hello new;

 

new cabinets.JPG

I do know that I will squash or be squashed one day . However, as well as the new cabinets, we now have these fantastic cocoon ends within which to work.

 

Cocoon end.JPG

A tad messy at the moment but give us a bit of time to sort it out and it will be like home .

 

We hope to have everything sorted by the 27th as on the 28th is the Dipterists Forum AGM which is being held at the NHM. This is a two day meeting, with talks and the AGM on the first day and then on the Sunday, everyone that wants to will have an opportunity to have a look at the British Diptera collection for the purpose of checking their own material as well as extracting distribution data of our specimens.

 

http://www.dipteristsforum.org.uk/t445-Dipterists-Days-2009.html

 

It will be the first time that the AMC is used for this purpose and we are all looking forward to it. I was amazed to discover in the process that we have someone in the museum specifically for the purpose of producing way signs!

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Well, nearly the end of today

So far – I got absolutely soaking cycling in to work, I’ve had one pupal death and three larval deaths over the weekend but I have three adults which are now pinned (mosquitoes ) , a meeting on the databasing system, visitors, and several loans to prepare….. on my desk i have a load on new flies that a colleague has given me from his garden as well as some from Cameroon that a student dropped off (albeit he has bugs confused with flies….)

But the Tajiks are at the London School to study some techniques so at least i can relax. The mini-bus went back today and no one has screamed at me because of the damage…..We took the Tajiks to a Salsa club on Friday night to show them some of London and it was their first night club!! and then on Saturday (and Sunday and Monday) we were in to monitor the mosquito larvae that are developing in one of the labs in the tower. We have a little production line. Bowls at the front for the very small larvae, once the develop to about the 4th in-star stage (just before they pupate) we separate them out into their own breeding tubes. Then when they pupate we remove the skin and store in alcohol, to which we will add the pupal skin when the adult emerges. Once the adult has emerged we have to leave it for 24hours to let the genitalia rotate into place . It’s all going well.

We have a new visitor in Diptera today from Spain who will be with us for a month. It is all becoming a rush at the moment as we are beginning to shut down the hatches to the collection in preparation for the move. It feels like this ominous event looming towards us…..
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I have now contacted 6 farms/animal adventure parks for next weeks field work down in Somerset. I wonder what the farmers make of me requesting to suck up their mosquito population! Some refused point blank, others were worried due to TB and swine flu and they were not letting anyone in, but most were most obliging (one even said that she would prefer it if we removed all of their flies…) so we have our field sites, our field equipment is being organised, dry ice is in house, we have a freezer at a local University down south to store our specimens... all we have to do is hope that the weather will be favorable.

As well as doing this, we are finalising a visit from the ‘Tajiks’ – this is work that I am undertaking with Ralph Harbach, a leading mosquito systematist. We have been contracted to help the Tajikistan research institutes with their mosquito eradication program alongside Nigel Hill from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. We have already been over there to look at the field sites and see their facilities and their local museum and now we are organising a training trip for them here. It is a lot of work and that is before they have even turned up. We have them for three weeks and it is at the same time that the new Darwin Centre will be launching.

And I have some Brazilian researchers turning up then too….

We also have our synoptic collection to organise (we being Entomology but more specifically I mean Diptera). We are organising labels, trays and drawers but as of today there are not enough trays and drawers!! This is a usual problem as we are always needing these due to incoming material and the need to properly house our specimens.

I am already planning a holiday for after this period... some where very remote with some nice wine
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Afternoon,

 

We had the most exciting fieldwork on Friday.  The first part of the day was spent on an Urban Farm. There were four girls (including me) and a French man carrying out this particular fieldwork and therefore lots of cooing over the animals. We were looking for mosquitoes and were armed with two backpack aspirators, a hand aspirator and a sweep net.

 

To be truthful, we were not expecting much as sampling can be very hit and miss (that will amaze people who are always being bitten!) but we were most surprised as we sucked up hundreds of specimens (now sitting in a minus 80 oC freezer awaiting DNA/RNA procedures). We also got nibbled by alpacas, screamed at by sheep and gobbled at by a ridiculous turkey – i just don’t understand those animals at all….

 

We then went onto Richmond Park to see if there were any resting adult populations that we could find there. We knew that this would be hard and we did not come across any. However we were also sampling for flies in general and so the afternoon was not altogether a right off (there were ice creams too :) ) It is lovely to get back into the field collecting.

 

The photos are from the farm and show some of the treacherous conditions that we have to sample in…

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OK. So i will not be finding out about sampling in pigeon lofts till thursday night but in the meantime we have hopefully organised sampling in Hounslow Farm and Richmond Park, fingers crossed. Going to suck the mosquitoes of pigs and Alpacas

Also just spoke to an old friend of mine about sampling down on the Somerset Levels, again for mosquitoes, as he works at a University down there. This is critical as we need a minus 80 freezer (he is a microbiologist - very handy) to ensure that the genetic material of the viruses (if there are any) does not denature.  The area should be great mosquito habitat and we need to contact some farmers to see if we can sample round their cow sheds etc. It is so much more complicated sampling in the UK as in Thailand/Vietnam everyone had a cow shed!!

Started working on the synoptic collection of UK Flies today that will be going into the New Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. This is where we luck out as there are a lot of species of flies in the UK (more than beetles and butterflies and moths put together!). Just doing the labels for the collection will take a couple of weeks! It will be good to have them more accessible though.