NIH award to fund research of light-based insect control alternative to pesticides

Todd C. Holmes, PhD, professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of California, Irvine, has been awarded a competitive five-year $2.1 million Outstanding Investigator Award/Maximizing Investigators' Research Award (MIRA) R35 grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the first MIRA grant awarded to a UCI investigator.

"Holmes received this prestigious award based on his long-term track record of discovery and continuous funding for his research," said Michael D. Cahalan, PhD, Distinguished Professor and chair of the UCI School of Medicine's Department of Physiology & Biophysics. "The MIRA grant acknowledges Holmes' major contributions in his field."

Holmes will use the funding to examine how insect phototransduction can be used to design better light-based insect control strategies.

"Light is the primary regulator of circadian rhythms and evokes a wide range of time-of-day specific behaviors," said Holmes. "By gaining an understanding of how insects respond to short wavelength light, we can develop new, environmentally friendly alternatives to controlling harmful bugs, such as mosquitoes, reducing the need for toxic pesticides."

Current insect control devices use ultraviolet light to attract insects to an electric grid or trap. In contrast to toxic insecticides, which cause considerable health and environmental harm, light-based insect control is very appealing due to safety and very low environmental impact.

"The design of current insect control lights is based on outdated assumptions about how insects detect light," said Holmes. "Recently, we discovered two additional short wavelength light phototransduction neuronal mechanisms in insects. Through this grant, we will leverage our discoveries with a goal to design new parameters for light-based insect control devices, improving their effectiveness and efficiency in the field."

This new research builds on Holmes' previous studies published over the past few years in Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So far all of the discovery science has been conducted in Drosophila fruit flies, the most useful insect model organism for laboratory molecular genetics. Holmes credits the development of CRISPR gene editing as the technology that will enable him to conduct rigorous molecular genetic science on mosquitoes.

"We discovered the novel Cryptochrome-based phototransduction mechanism in Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies shortly after I arrived at UCI in 2007. My goal is to apply these findings to improve human health," said Holmes. "I'm targeting mosquitoes, as they are a leading transmitter of many viruses including the Chikungunya virus, which has made its way into the U.S. in recent years. I feel it's my responsibility to do something about this as an NIH-funded investigator."

In the past 10-15 years, cases of vector-borne diseases (those spread by mosquitos and other bloodsucking insects) including West Nile virus, Zika virus, Chikungunya virus and dengue fever, have grown explosively in the Western hemisphere and the U.S., causing more than 700,000 deaths annually and accounting for more than 17 percent of all infectious diseases worldwide.

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