Subunit Theoretical Vector Biology

Malaria represents still a major global health burden. Although it is transmitted by mosquitoes, their complex biological traits are often neglected by current eradication strategies. In the theoretical biology group we use  bottom-up modelling approaches that integrate knowledge gained in laboratory and field settings into mathematical models of development dynamics and transmission. The aim? Understand how single mosquito traits might influence malaria transmission in humans. This is a novel approach that can identify novel mechanisms or misconceptions in the way transmission occurs.

Combining experimental, field and mathematical approaches, we study different questions.

How does mosquito metabolism and feeding behaviour shape malaria transmission and evolution?

(P. Carrillo-Bustamante, G. Costa, E.A. Levashina)

Recent experimental evidence has highlighted the pivotal role of metabolic pathways and blood-feeding behavior in the development of the parasite within the mosquito. As the impact of these within-vector metabolic processes on Plasmodium transmission to human hosts is difficult to address experimentally, it largely remains unexplored. In this project, we conceptualize complex metabolic processes within the mosquito and their interactions with Plasmodium parasites, and integrate these into an individual-based model of malaria transmission. This will allow us to study and quantify the strategies that parasites naturally evolve in this context.

How does climate change affect mosquito populations?

(J. Estupiñán, A. Weyrich, C. Naujoks, E.A. Levashina, P. Carrillo-Bustamante)

Because many traits in the mosquito life cycle are affected by the surrounding environment there has been increasing concern about how climate change will shape malaria transmission. The interactions between environment, parasites, and mosquitoes are highly complex and therefore difficult to study. What are the strongest environmental drivers of Anopheles abundance, and what mechanisms of the mosquito life cycle do they affect? 
We use a combination of ordinary differential equation (ODE) and empirical dynamic modeling on time series data obtained in laboratory and field conditions, respectively. Our aim is to extract causal interactions between environmental variables and mosquito abundance.

Early stages of the malaria parasite inside the mosquito

(G. Costa, P. Suárez, E.A. Levashina, A. Valleriani)

The human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum is ingested by the mosquito of the species Anopheles, when the mosquito gets a blood meal from an infected host. Inside the mosquito gut, the parasite's first 24 hours show a set of genetic and morphological transformations in order to escape this deadly environment during blood digestion. This process seems to be one of the weakest points of the parasite's life cycle, so it is worth studying it to gain more insight into how it can be influenced and perhaps even stopped. We combine fascinating and highly quantitative experimental data with a mathematical model that recapitulates this process and produces various estimates of the time distributions involved. The results of modeling will allow us to quantitatively compare parasite development under different growth and environmental conditions. 


Paola Carrillo-Bustamante, PhD. 

Paola obtained her Master degree in Biomedical Engineering at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and then completed her PhD in Computational Biology in the Theoretical Biology and Bioinformatics group at Utrecht University. Before joining the Levashina lab, she was a postdoctoral researcher in the Modelling and Immunity group at Heidelberg University. Currently, she is a staff scientist and leads the Theoretical Vector Biology group inside the research unit headed by Elena Levashina. Paola‘s research focuses on the role of mosquito physiology, metabolism, and environment on the transmission success and evolution of malaria.

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