Overview of our research program

Our lab focuses on studying the thermal biology, eco-physiology and neuro-ethology of disease vector insects and ticks. We rely on a collaborative, multidisciplinary and integrative approach, combining field work, behavioral analyses, molecular biology, chemical ecology and electrophysiology. The results from these projects help to get a better understanding of the disease vectors’ biology, and will lay the groundwork for the development of new tools to control their populations.

Current projects

Sugar feeding ecology in invasive mosquito species​

Thermal biology of mosquitoes  

Collaborators:

Dr. David McLeod (James Madison University)

Dr. Sally Paulson (VT Entomology)

Dr. Claudio Lazzari (IRBI, CNRS, Université de Tours, France)

Climate Change and the Dynamics of Mosquito Populations in Virginia

Collaborators: 

Dr. Karen Kovaka (VT Philosophy)

Dr. Luis Escobar (VT Wildlife)

Dr. Clément Vinauger (VT Biochemistry)

Development of tools for mosquito trapping in remote areas

Collaborator: 

Dr. David Schmale (VT Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science)

Funding sources: 

MicroFEWHS 

Fralin Institute 

Institute for Society, Culture and Environment

Olfactory neurobiology and behavior of mosquitoes (Post-doc work)

     During my post-doc in Jeffrey Riffell's lab, I investigated several aspects of mosquitoes' interactions with their environment. In particular, I focused on mosquito learning abilities, pollination ecology and thermal biology.

Project 1: Olfactory Processing of Plant Odors in Mosquitoes 

 

     Moquitoes are not only blood-feeders but they also use carbohydrates from plants to sustain their basal metabolism. In nature, sugars are found in ripe fruits and flower nectar. During their visitation of flowers, mosquitoes can transfer pollen to another flower and pollinate them. It is the case for the beautiful Platanthera obtusata (on right), a small and rare orchid. 

     For this project, I study the snow mosquitoes species complex that are present in Washington State and that are the primary pollinators of this orchid species. We used chemical ecology approaches, electrophysiology and behavioral assays to understand what make mosquitoes attracted to these plants.

Project 2: Temperature Effect on Olfactory Processing in mosquitoes

     In order to obtain a blood meal, disease vector insects need to accurately identify and locate mobile vertebrate hosts using a wide range of cues, in particular olfactory signals, which are key mediator of the vector-host interaction. While the physiological processes regulating food-seeking behavior have been well studied in these insects, comparatively less is understood about how environmental temperature might affect the performance of their sensory system. 

     l thus aim at contributing closing the knowledge gaps in our understanding of thermal sensitivity in disease vector mosquitoes.

Project 3: Olfactory Learning and Memory in Aedes aegypti Mosquitoes

 

     Mosquitoes are able to learn and retain olfactory information in an appetitive context when an odor is paired with the presentation of a reward such as a blood-meal.

     In collaboration with Dr. Clément Vinauger, another post-doctoral researcher in the Riffell lab, I seeked to dive deeper into the understanding of the fine underlying processes implicated in learning and memory in mosquitoes.

     For this project, we used behavioral assays, developed molecular tools as well as electroghysiological techniques to assess their learning abilities (Vinauger, Lahondère et al., 2017).

Thermal stress associated with feeding in haematophagous insects (PhD work)

     In their environment, insects are submitted to thermal fluctuations and have developed a suite of responses, both physiological and behavioral, to minimize the deleterious consequences that high temperature might cause. Some species even actively regulate their internal temperature independently of the environmental temperature (i.e. thermoregulation). If these insects can overcome the thermal constraints imposed by their environment, those that feed on warm-blooded vertebrate hosts have no choice but to experience a thermal stress at each feeding event.

    The main objective of my PhD in Claudio Lazzari's lab consisted in understanding how haematophagous disease vector insects manage the thermal stress associated with the massive heat flow generated by the ingestion of blood. Using complementary techniques such as real-time infrared thermography during blood-feeding, anatomical and morphological analysis as well as physiological manipulations, I specifically sought to answer three questions:

 

     (1) How do they manage to withstand the blood-meal temperature?

     (2) Do they rely on thermoregulatory strategies to minimize thermal stress risks?

     (3) If so, what are the specific mechanisms involved (e.g. physiological, morphological and behavioral)?

           

       For this project, I worked with triatomine bugs (Rhodnius prolixus), mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti, Anopheles stephensi, Anopheles gambiae) and tsetse flies (Glossina morsitans morsitans). These insects are vectors of the causative agents of several diseases such as Chagas disease, malaria, yellow fever or sleeping sickness. A better knowledge of their thermal biology may have important epidemiological consequences for humans.

 

     This work showed that they have indeed developed different highly sophisticated thermoregulation strategies such as evaporative cooling of droplets of fluids in mosquitoes (Lahondere and Lazzari, 2012, 2013) or specific hemolymph circulation patterns in triatomine bugs (Lahondere et al., 2017) that protect them from overheating and potential death. Tsetse flies seem to have a higher thermotolerance as thermoregulation processes has not been evinced in the species we studied (Lahondere and Lazzari, 2015). We also showed that thermoregulating allows R. prolixus to avoid cannibalism (Lazzari et al., 2018).