Emerging arboviruses: the effect of vector and host biology and genetic diversity on the emergence and maintenance of the flaviviruses.
I am interested in the underlying causes of viral emergence, potential sources of novel viruses, and the insect vectors that transmit pathogens. A major focus of my research is the mosquitoes and other insects that spread disease to humans. My work is funded by the Wellcome Trust, the largest charity in the UK.
Often, the mosquito species responsible for a given epidemic, and its ecology, are not accurately known. Together with my mentor here at the Museum, Dr Ralph Harbach, we are developing accurate, cheap and easy ways to discover which mosquito species are implicated in disease transmission. We work closely with other scientists in Africa and Asia to collect samples, primarily mosquitoes. The insects are screened for known and as yet undiscovered viral strains. We then develop morphological and molecular DNA methods to identify the mosquito species to aid investigation of the factors that are responsible for disease epidemics. This should allow control efforts to be accurately targeted and hence make the most efficient use of limited resources in developing countries.
I focus on viruses that belong to the genus Flavivirus. This includes dengue fever virus, Yellow Fever virus, and West Nile virus. Flaviviruses can be either (i) arthropod-borne, transmitted to vertebrate hosts by mosquitoes and ticks, (ii) have no known vector, presumed to be limited to vertebrates, or (iii) appear to be limited to insects alone. Thus, these viruses represent a unique model for studying the evolution of vector-borne viral diseases. My research aims to provide the genetic and ecological data needed to understand the processes by which flaviviruses have evolved to exploit different hosts and vectors, elucidating the general principles underlying cross-species transmission and viral emergence.