Texas Tech University

Insects That Spread Disease Could Also Hold Key to Prevention

Glenys Young

July 2, 2020


Corey Brelsfoard is investigating how a common bacteria can be used to limit the transmission of arthropod-borne parasites and pathogens.

Every summer, as people begin to spend more time outdoors, warnings come out about the dangers of mosquitoes. Backpackers, hikers and campers are warned about the risk of ticks.

And for good reason. Mosquitoes can transmit Saint Louis encephalitis, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, Zika and West Nile viruses. Ticks can spread the Heartland virus or Lyme disease.

But, inside many of those insects are tiny bacteria that just may protect you.


Wolbachia pipientis live inside the cells of arthropods, like ticks and mosquitoes, and naturally infect up to 55% of insects. The good news is that insects infected with Wolbachia may not be able to infect you with anything else.

That's why Corey Brelsfoard, an assistant professor in Texas Tech University's Department of Biological Sciences, is examining how Wolbachia's antiviral qualities might be applied to other species of mosquitoes, ticks and other important insect vectors.

"My lab's research is focused on the development of novel tools to control insect and insect-vectored pathogens," Brelsfoard said. "Wolbachia has been demonstrated to inhibit virus transmission in mosquitoes and currently is being used as a method to reduce dengue virus transmission in 15 different countries. Several projects in the lab are focused on the transition of Wolbachia technologies to Culicoides biting midges, ticks and mosquitoes."

Aedes mosquito

Brelsfoard is a faculty member within Texas Tech's new Zoonotic & Infectious Diseases Research Center, along with many of his biological sciences colleagues and others from across the university. He hopes the collaboration will further not only his own research, but also the wider base of knowledge to benefit the world.

"Having a cohesive research center that brings together the expertise of multiple labs and faculty is a great opportunity to expand my lab's research program and Texas Tech's research capacity to investigate different aspects of infectious and vector-borne disease transmission," Brelsfoard said. "It is my hope that we can develop novel insect/arthropod and disease-control approaches for vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, bluetongue virus, dengue virus, Zika virus and epizootic hemorrhagic disease."

The value of such a facility, Brelsfoard said, is easy to see – especially now.

"The Zoonotic & Infectious Diseases Research Center is more important than ever and is highlighted by the recent COVID-19 outbreak," he said. "The next disease outbreak will be right around the corner, and having the appropriate tools to fight disease transmission will be paramount."