Associate Professor Nigel Beebe works in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland with a joint appointment at CSIRO. He received the Marshall and Warren Ideas Grant Award (Innovation) for his work on the role of mosquitos in vector-borne disease, answering fundamental questions about which species transmit pathogens, where they exist and why – and developing a species-specific biocontrol for Australia and beyond.
When asked what I do as a scientist, I would usually say that I use DNA to tell stories about mosquitoes.
Across more than two decades, my research has moved between both fundamental and applied research in the quest to advance our understanding of mosquito evolution, species’ distribution and their role in mosquito-borne disease in the Indo-Pacific region. I’ve sought to use this knowledge to better comprehend the mosquito–pathogen–human relationship so that we can develop focused mosquito control options that will make an appreciable difference to public health – to life – in this part of the world.
When I began this work, it was not clear which mosquitoes transmitted malaria and arboviruses in our region, nor did we know exactly how many distinct mosquito species there were. I came from a background in the molecular biology of parasites at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and moved to working on mosquitoes there when I realised this enormous gap in our regional knowledge of insects that transmit human pathogens.
Chair of NHMRC Research Committee, Professor Steve Wesselingh, with Associate Professor Nigel Beebe. (Photo credit: NHMRC/PewPew Photography.)
This knowledge void would make any mosquito control – particularly disrupting and curtailing cycles of vector-borne disease, not to mention their expansion – very difficult. And the basic work of understanding how many species were in play, and which transmitted human pathogens, took about 15 years of highly collaborative research linking the field back to the laboratory.
Through that time, and beyond, I’ve been fortunate to build and benefit from extensive and diverse collaborative links into the field and scientific and public health bodies, and my research has evolved to integrate traditional entomological procedures with molecular genetics and informatics-based technologies. These are generous networks across different countries and sectors; I’m grateful for everyone who’s been part of them along the way, and excited that they keep expanding.
Now, too, I am particularly excited by the latest addition to our suite of research: a novel environmentally friendly, species-specific mosquito population suppression tool developed through my CSIRO affiliation. We initially secured significant funding through NHMRC in 2015, which led to successful large field experiments funded by the Google affiliate, Verily Life Science, 2016–2018. These trials demonstrated the possibility of not only suppressing wild mosquito populations – in this case, the highly urbanised exotic Aedes aegypti; the mosquitoes that transmit diseases including dengue, chikungunya, Zika and yellow fever – but of potentially removing them from the urban landscape through the release of essentially sterile males. These male mosquitoes don’t bite; they just search and mate with females with no offspring produced.
With this latest funding from the NHMRC Ideas Grant scheme – as recognised by this Award – we can further develop and expand this work and its technologies, which brings us to the beginning of an exciting journey in the development of new biological mosquito control tools for Australia, the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
At a fundamental level, the research outcomes from my lab continue to answer important questions about which mosquito species transmit disease pathogens, where they exist, why they are there and how their populations connect and move. This grows our capacity to deliver novel insights and tools to better understand vector biology and ecology. And beyond the novel science involved here, I’m excited to be working towards demonstrable public health outcomes – and all the potential social and economic benefits of change in this space – in terms of reducing the burden of mosquito-borne disease and making a difference in both Australia and, more importantly, the region. It’s exciting, too, to demonstrate the ongoing importance and possibility of the transition of knowledge from field to lab to field again, and the importance of the connections, intersections, generous collaborations and exchanges involved between different researchers and settings along the way.
Being acknowledged by this year’s Marshall and Warren Award is an unexpected gift. Encouraging and very gratifying, it’s an exciting recognition of all the people involved in the development of this project so far. It’s also an exciting way to keep the story of science moving, and to underscore the realisation that 25 years of basic research can continue to open doors for innovative applied research and that both knowledge, and technological opportunities, continue to evolve and accrete, each building on earlier work to create opportunities for investigation and intervention. The process itself is powerful: that science can continue to present many new options, and that applied research can allow it to take those next steps to realise change.
To begin this work when we did not know exactly which mosquito species existed and what they were doing; to see this work grow through the emergence of critical issues such as insecticide resistance, landscape alteration and climate change, through scientific and technological developments in terms of the questions we can ask, the means by which they might be answered, and the techniques and approaches we can pursue: to be at the cutting edge of a journey like this that keeps evolving and that has the potential to have a real-world impact in our region and beyond, that is an extraordinary place to arrive in a life of curiosity, persistence, precarity, imagination and connection.