UMass Amherst Lab Now Testing Thousands of Mosquitoes for National Ecology Tracking Project

Aedes aegypti mosquito
Aedes aegypti mosquito

AMHERST, Mass. –The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Laboratory of Medical Zoology (LMZ), better known for its national tick-borne disease testing service,this week begins mosquito testing with the arrival of 15,000 vials of mosquitoes collected from 47 sites across the continent as part of National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) project. Each vial contains up to 50 mosquitoes, says microbiologist and LMZ director Stephen Rich. 

He adds, “We’ve been testing ticks for NEON for a couple years, and we’re excited to now become the nation’s mosquito testing laboratory. This is a great opportunity for our state since there is great interest in spread of mosquitoes in Massachusetts. Our lab will test these mosquitoes for a variety of known viruses such as Eastern equine encephalitis, West Nile virus, Zika and dengue, plus a number of unknown viruses.” 

This year’s work is done through a one-year, $660,000 contract to LMZ, but Rich says he anticipates that this will be a long-term arrangement because the NEON program is set to run 30 years. Harvard Forest in Petersham is one of NEON’s 47 study sites, so Massachusetts is represented in the national sample. 

Rich explains that the mosquitoes are arriving via FedEx this week and will be placed in ultra-cold freezers. “Because this is a new operation and our team is new, with several technicianshired in recent weeks, we’re starting off slowly testing some locally collected mosquitoes. Once up to speed, we will daily pull mosquitoes from that ultra-cold freezer.”

The microbiologist says the NEON mosquitoes from across the nation are “a precious resource,” because so much effort by others has gone into collecting and sorting them by species before they reach the LMZ. “These samples are a kind of time capsule that will be used to study the changing ecological profile across the continent. Starting in coming weeks mosquito testing will be daily work,” Rich adds. 

NEON is a continental-scale ecological observation facility, sponsored by NSF and operated by Battelle since 2016. NEON collects and provides open data that characterize and quantify how our nation’s ecosystems are changing. The comprehensive data, spatial extent and remote sensing technology provided by the NEON project will contribute to a better understanding and more accurate forecasting of how human activities impact ecology and how our society can more effectively address critical ecological questions and issues.