Dan Neafsey takes aim at Anopheles mosquitoes and their partner parasites

Haley Bridger, October 21st, 2010 | Filed under
  • Dan Neafsey. Photo by Haley Bridger, Broad Communications.

After studying the evolution of genome size in puffer fish for his doctoral thesis, Dan Neafsey was ready for a change. A population geneticist by training, Dan wanted to study an organism or system with a larger impact on human welfare. As he was finishing his thesis in the Hartl lab at Harvard, Dan began to teach himself Perl programming – just enough to perform an initial comparative analysis on malaria genomes and begin learning about the disease with Dyann Wirth’s partner lab at Harvard School of Public Health. The project set Dan on a path toward studying two organisms that, together, have plagued humans for perhaps millions of years: the malaria-causing Plasmodium parasites, and their vector, Anopheles mosquitoes.

For the last six years, Dan has worked as a computational biologist at the Broad Institute. Today, his work focuses on the transmission of malaria to humans, a process that is complicated by diversity within both the Anopheles mosquito and the parasite it carries.

Anopheles gambiae, the primary mosquito vector in sub-Saharan Africa where the malaria death rate is highest, is in the process of speciating, or becoming several, distinct species. Some sub-populations have developed resistance to insecticides, but the mosquitoes look indistinguishable.

“If you are doing a mosquito control program and you’re putting out insecticide-treated bed nets or you’re spraying the underside of roofs where mosquitoes like to rest, you’d like to pick your insecticide in an informed way and choose one that will be effectual,” says Dan. To do that, researchers are working on a way to distinguish mosquito populations at a genetic level.

Dan is also working with Broad colleagues in the Sequencing Platform on a way of purifying malaria parasite DNA from patient blood samples. “There are so many different avenues of interesting research at the Broad,” he says. “Sometimes, there are fun opportunities to connect them in ways that they wouldn’t ordinarily be connected.”