Genomics, phylogenetics, and mosquito invasions on display at UCalgary SURE Research Day
Soghigian Lab students Sergiu Cocciuba, Shahaanaa Mohanaraj, and Abdullah Zubair presented on their summer research projects at the annual SURE Research Day on August 24th, 2022. SURE Research Day is an opportunity for undergraduate students participating in the UCVM Summer Undergraduate Research Experience to present their research to the wider UCVM and UCalgary community. The event had more than 50 undergraduate participants.
Shahaanaa Mohanaraj gave an oral presentation on her summer work tracking the invasion of Culex pipiens, the Northern House Mosquito, in Alberta. Culex pipiens is a globally-invasive mosquito that is a major vector of pathogens like West Nile virus, dog heartworm, and many others. This mosquito is found throughout most of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and is now widely distributed throughout North America, as well. Until recently, this mosquito was thought to be found only in eastern Ontario or western British Columbia, but climate change models predicted the mosquito would be more widely distributed across southern Canada soon. This mosquito was first detected in Edmonton in 2018, and due to the widespread distribution of the mosquito at the time, it seems plausible it has been in Alberta for much longer. Despite sampling throughout Calgary during the summer of 2022 with the City of Calgary, Culex pipiens has yet to be detected in Calgary, likely indicating that this mosquito was introduced to the Edmonton area through human activity. The Soghigian Lab and the City of Calgary will continue to monitor throughout Calgary to assess the changing distribution of this important vector.
Sergiu Cocciuba presented a poster on his draft genome assembly of the eastern treehole mosquito, Aedes triseriatus, the vector of La Crosse virus. Genome assemblies allow scientists to investigate the genetic basis of important phenotypes, and in this case, the ability for Aedes triseriatus to transmit pathogens is well-described, while a closely related species can not. However, neither Aedes triseriatus, nor its close relative, have existing genomic resources, which S. Cocciuba's research hoped to change. First, though, we had to establish the best tools for the job, and S. Coccibua, along with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Gen Morinaga, evaluated numerous software options. Ultimately, the genome assembly resulting from this project was comparable to existing, published genomes in the genus Aedes, but was also the largest mosquito genome sequenced to date, in line with expectations from previous research. In the future, this genome will be used in comparative genomics projects to better understand the evolution of important traits associated with vector competency.
Abdullah Zubair presented a poster on his research into the loss of blood-feeding and biting behavior in mosquitoes. For obvious reasons, the best known mosquitoes are those that require blood-meals for egg development. However, multiple mosquito genera do not bite, but whether this reflects a single transition away from biting behavior, or multiple transitions, has been hindered by a lack of understanding of mosquito evolutionary relationships. While new genomic sequencing methods promise finally unraveling evolutionary relationships in many animal groups including mosquitoes, the best way to treat and analyze such genomic data has not been properly evaluated. A. Zubair's project sought both to understand the number of times blood-feeding has been lost, and to assess the best bioinformatic tools to use. His results demonstrated that there has been at least two independent losses of blood-feeding in mosquitoes, an intriguing result that will prompt further investigation into the genetic mechanisms that underlie this loss of blood-feeding. As for the best bioinformatic pipelines, among the two he compared, they performed similarly - likely a reflection of the underlying power of the data he analyzed to elucidate long-unknown relationships among animal lineages.
All three undergraduate research projects were extremely well-received by faculty and students at the SURE event.