Penn State entomology researchers receive Grand Challenges Explorations grant

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two Penn State researchers have been chosen to receive a grant through the Grand Challenges Explorations program, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Johanna Ohm, graduate student in biology, and Matt Thomas, professor and Huck Scholar in Ecological Entomology, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project titled "Insects feeding insects: An artificial hemolymph-based diet to rear Aedes/Anopheles mosquitoes."

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds individuals worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Ohm's project is one of more than 50 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 15 grants announced earlier this month by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To receive funding, Ohm and other Grand Challenges Explorations winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas. The foundation will accept applications for the next GCE round in March 2016.

Ohm's plan is to develop an insect-based artificial diet for adult Aedes/Anopheles mosquitoes as a viable alternative to mammalian blood meals.

The ability to rear mosquitoes is important to enable scientists to study mosquito-transmitted diseases in the lab and to develop novel control tools, such as mass release of sterile mosquitoes that could suppress wild populations.

"Mosquitoes are tricky because they feed on blood," said Ohm. "Companies and laboratories that mass-rear mosquitoes rely on blood from human volunteers, blood banks, slaughterhouses or live animals. The problem with this approach is that all of these sources are either expensive, strictly regulated, need to be screened for blood-borne pathogens or require a refrigerated supply chain. These factors create substantial challenges in many malaria- or dengue-endemic settings."

However, she added, mosquitoes have been reported to feed on soft-bodied insects, such as lepidopteran (moth and butterfly) larvae, suggesting that an economical, scalable and sustainable alternative to vertebrate blood meals could be developed using insects. 

"It's an intriguing prospect that we might be able to exploit the ancestral feeding behavior of mosquitoes to develop an artificial diet that does not need to be refrigerated and sidesteps the health and ethical concerns of using vertebrate blood," said Thomas.

According to Ohm, the team believes that eventually their work could result in a shelf-stable powder made out of dried or ground insects that could be turned into a ready-made mosquito meal.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, over 1,160 projects in more than 60 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short, two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.

Last Updated December 14, 2015