Megan Mair.

Infection detection: VCU student researcher is using the latest DNA sequencing technologies to pinpoint a malaria parasite

Analyzing DNA data of mosquitoes has been “an amazing window into the world of malaria research and its importance to global health,” Megan Mair said.

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As part of Research Weeks (April 6–27) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Global Education Office, Division for Inclusive Excellence and guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks takes place on both campuses and features a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.

A Virginia Commonwealth University student researcher is perfecting methods of detecting a malaria parasite in mosquitoes in the Brazilian Amazon. 

Megan Mair and mentor Luiz Shozo Ozaki, Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, use the latest DNA sequencing technologies to identify plasmodium, the malaria parasite in anopheline mosquitoes. The insect transmits the parasite to humans.

Mair, a senior studying bioinformatics, is working with Ozaki and collaborators at the institutions Fiocruz Rondonia in Brazil, and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in England, to determine if new DNA sequencing technologies can help better identify the malaria parasite than more commonly used methods. Researchers typically identify a particular protein or examine DNA fragments of the parasite, but this does not always paint a complete picture, Mair said.

“These methods have the potential to lead to false positives and false negatives due to lack of specificity,” she said. “If we can determine infection of the parasite based on sequencing reads, and if the cost and complexity of sequencing goes down in the next few years, this could be a sound method to utilize in the field.”

Mair said the work gave her a compelling experience in tropical diseases.

This has been an amazing window into the world of malaria research and its importance to global health.

“I had never put much thought into malaria research because it doesn’t affect a lot of people in the United States,” Mair said. “This has been an amazing window into the world of malaria research and its importance to global health.”

Mair analyzed DNA sequencing data of mosquitoes collected by colleagues in the village Vila Amazonas, a village in the Brazilian state of Rondonia, where in 2008 researchers attempted to eliminate malaria by directly eliminating the parasite in the human host. Ozaki and his collaborators are concurrently characterizing the genetic profile of two populations of mosquitoes captured before and after malaria was eliminated in the village.

Mair spent much of last summer sorting DNA sequences from more than 1,000 mosquitoes. She compared sequences from the total DNA of the mosquitoes to those in a database of plasmodium DNA to determine which mosquitoes were infected.

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Mair and collaborators found additional confirmation that malaria elimination efforts in Vila Amazonas were effective. Before the disease was eliminated, there was higher incidence of the malaria parasite within mosquitoes.

The researchers are also confirming evidence they found of a species of malaria parasite not previously documented in the region.

“If that is true, this could really change the way malaria is treated in Brazil because that parasite isn’t currently screened for in humans,” Mair said. “We are hoping this isn’t the case. Hopefully, more DNA sequencing would confirm this with certainty.”

Mair said she would like to work with another graduate researcher in bioinformatics to continue interpreting the mosquito data. Ozaki said Mair’s technical skills and approach to scientific research will serve her well in this and future endeavors.

“Her computational skills are impressive. For instance, she is able to quickly write an algorithm to sort specific files from millions in a database,” he said. “What most impresses me is her inquisitive mind, new ideas and original conclusions.”