Worst of Two Worlds: Hybrid mosquitoes spread West Nile virus

Mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus in North America are a blend of two strains that remain essentially distinct in the Old World, researchers report. Interbreeding may explain why the insects often bite both birds and people in North America but generally only one or the other in Europe.

SKEETER FEEDER. Hybridization of Culex mosquitoes may influence their feeding behavior and capacity to spread West Nile virus, which can cause fatal human disease. CDC Image Gallery

West Nile virus has caused fatal encephalitis in people during recent U.S. outbreaks but only rarely has it been lethal in Northern European cases. If the hybrid mosquitoes become widespread in Europe, West Nile disease could become a serious problem there, says Dina M. Fonseca of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

In Europe, Culex pipiens mosquitoes come in two varieties. One bites birds and lives outdoors. Another feeds on people and rodents and occupies mainly warm, subterranean spaces, such as train tunnels.

European ships probably introduced C. pipiens to the New World, where it survives in both environments and is a less discriminating feeder than either of the European strains. So, it may carry the West Nile virus from birds to people.

To understand how C. pipiens populations are related, Fonseca and her colleagues studied genetic variation in multiple populations from the United States and Europe and one population from each of Australia, Japan, and Jordan. The researchers examined eight genetic markers that have no apparent biological effect but vary from mosquito to mosquito. Fonseca says that laboratory advances have only recently made it possible to study these markers, called polymorphic microsatellites, in C. pipiens.

Subterranean and aboveground mosquitoes from Europe and Asia show distinct genetic profiles, suggesting that they don’t regularly interbreed. In the United States, however, C. pipiens populations have DNA from both European types, Fonseca and her colleagues report in the March 5 Science. They also observe limited hybridization in C. pipiens mosquitoes in southern Europe, where mild climes may permit the subterranean variety to venture above ground.

The findings are “totally unexpected” and have implications for both controlling West Nile virus and studying how insect species evolve, says evolutionary geneticist Richard Nichols of Queen Mary, University of London, in England.

After studying mosquitoes in the London Underground, Nichols previously hypothesized that the subterranean C. pipiens descended from local mosquitoes living above ground. But the new data suggest that underground mosquitoes evolved in Southern Europe and colonized protected environments worldwide. Fonseca’s team found closer relationships among subterranean mosquitoes globally than among neighboring mosquitoes that inhabit different niches.

If C. pipiens mosquitoes that bite both birds and people ever become common in northern Europe, Nichols says, “the distribution of West Nile disease could change radically.” Consequently, the accidental introduction of North American mosquitoes to Europe represents a potential health threat.

A similar problem could arise if interbreeding between the Old World types becomes more common in Europe, Fonseca notes.