Ecologists from the University of Georgia and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies discovered that more species of mosquitoes might be transmitting the Zika virus than previously thought. Using a predictive model, the ecologists published their findings in the journal eLife, according to a press release from the University of Georgia. The scientists listed 26 species, including seven that are within the United States.
The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes that are active during the daytime hours. The virus was first isolated in 1947 in the Zika Forest of Uganda. It is related to the dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, and the West Nile viruses. Zika began to spread east starting in 2007, crossing the Pacific Ocean and coming into the U.S. leading to an epidemic. The symptoms can be mild and similar to dengue fever. There is no current treatment for the Zika virus and no known vaccine for it. It is especially harmful to pregnant women and their unborn children. It can result in microcephaly, severe brain malformations, and other birth defects. In adults, the Zika virus can lead to Guillain–Barré syndrome. The CDC issued warnings to pregnant women traveling through the affected countries including Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica.
Michelle V. Evans lead author and a ecology and conservation doctoral student said in the press release that the seven mosquitoes native to the US “are the species that we need to prioritize,” particularly since the U.S. is in the colder seasons with less mosquito activity.
The model developed by the ecologists could “streamline” identifying species and save time and money in the fight against the virus. Using machine learning, “a form of artificial intelligence that is particularly useful for finding patterns in large, complicated data sets,” the ecologists developed the model. Using the known data, the biologists used the model to find 35 Zika carrying mosquitoes.
Courtney C. Murdock, co-author and assistant professor at the University of Georgia, said that the researchers drew up a list of possible mosquito species “based on the association with viruses that they’ve had in the past as well as other traits that are specific to that species.” Evans and Murdock said not to assume that Zika will spread to more areas in the U.S. Senior author and professor at the Odum School at the University of Georgia, John M. Drake said that their work shows examples of the ecological way of thinking and why it is important in the battle against infectious diseases. Further research into the seven U.S. mosquitoes should be the top priority according to Evans and Murdock.
By Cheryl Werber