K-State Professor Finds Buzz in Mosquito Research

K-State Professor Finds Buzz in Mosquito Research

Kristin Michel, PhD, actually likes mosquitoes. As a Professor of Parasitology within the Division of Biology at Kansas State University (K-State), she studies them, teaches about them, and believes that researching them can answer the diseases they spread. She aims to build an understanding of the resilience of parasites and spark an interest in her students to be equally enamored by the little blood suckers.

Michel can track this interest back to the minute. In her high school Biology class, the teacher taught a 20-minute section on the lac operon genes within bacteria. This is a feedback mechanism that senses food and regulates the digestion process. Then once it is completed, it turns the process back off.

“I was totally hooked,” Michel said. “This is sort of an informatics switch in a functional organism. It is ones and zeros for a complex biological phenomenon. I knew I wanted to expand on this topic for the rest of my life.”

Captivating Journey to Discovery

This deep interest has sparked some impressive discoveries around the immune system response within insects that may carry translational value. As an example, when a pathogen gets introduced to an insect, it nearly immediately reacts and creates a layer of melanin around the pathogen. “It traps and kills the pathogen and separates it from the host completely; it’s a really clever process,” Michel said.

Expanding on this specifically to mosquitoes is even more impressive. “Think about our blood clotting system. It depends on a serial activation of proteases, producing a protein called fibrin that then creates a clot,” Michel explained. Mosquitos have a similar serial activation of proteases in reaction to infections as their immune response. “There are over 100 of these proteases involved. Their system seems much more complex than previously thought,” Michel said.

Understand, Identify, & Uncover

With her graduate students, they are identifying these proteases and uncovering the environmental differences that could contribute to this overdrive immune response. There also is an element of control around Michel’s study. “Once we better understand how their immune system works, we can see what mosquitoes are exposed to, what they eat, and how they are affected by different environmental factors. Once we have more information, we may be able to find ways to specifically control and kill mosquitoes without broad insecticides,” Michel said.

Michel grew up in Germany, came to the United States to earn her PhD at the University of California-Riverside in 2002, and landed at K-State in 2007. “Manhattan is the smallest place I have ever lived,” Michel said. “I have always lived by the coast, so being 60 miles from the geographic center of the US has been an adjustment.” She and her family enjoy traveling, sharing new experiences, and finding a deep appreciation in most destinations they explore.

A Unique Appreciation of SciComm

A secret weapon that Michel benefitted from, unique for an entomologist, is that she studied literature.

After so many years studying biology, I felt like part of my brain was atrophying,” Michel said. The benefit was that she became more adept at communicating her research and study. “I can stop and quickly explain my specialty to the cashier at the supermarket and pique their interest. I’m lucky because everyone has an opinion about mosquitoes.”

With the diseases spread globally by mosquitoes, a better understanding of how their notable immune response works will provide translational value. From how we control their spread to how bacteria infect them, the more Michel can learn about mosquitoes, the more they can contribute to science.