May 13, 2014 | By Jake Weber
Drosophila, a common fruit fly, has long been a staple research tool for biologists—in fact, the Drosophila Research Conference just held its 55th annual meeting. Albion College biology professor Roger Albertson and students Marissa Cloutier, Jack Manquen and Allison McClish presented posters at the conference, sharing work they believe could improve human health in developing countries.
"Most people were impressed that we were presenting research, as less than 10 percent of attendees were undergraduates," said Cloutier, '14. "People were very receptive. It was a great feeling to present new data to people who are experts in the field. It was also a great learning experience to interact with others who conduct research that is similar to ours."
Albertson and his students have worked on several projects involving Wolbachia bacteria, which in different strains cause severe illnesses to humans and other mammals, mosquitoes and fruit flies. McClish, '15, studied the transmission of Wolbachia among wild Drosophila around Albion, while Cloutier examined how antibiotics could control Wolbachia in fruit flies. Manquen, '15, investigated cellular interactions between Wolbachia and its Drosophila host.
The effect of a common type of bacteria on a common insect has huge implications for humans, Albertson explained. Wolbachia is the causative agent of several tropical diseases, including lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) and Onchocerciasis (river blindness). More than 200 million people are infected and one billion people are at risk.
"The World Health Organization currently ranks these as among the most serious neglected diseases in the world," Albertson said. "Our lab utilizes a similar, yet harmless, strain of Wolbachia to examine how the bacteria manipulate their host and to identify new drugs that effectively target the bacteria."
The data gathered by McClish and Manquen have deepened understanding of how Wolbachia is transmitted in a population and how it alters the host at a cellular level. Cloutier identified several new drugs that lower Wolbachia levels in the host.
"This research conducted at Albion College is part of an international effort to control Wolbachia," Albertson said. The University of California, Florida International University and the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, are among other research institution collaborators.
Cloutier will enter graduate school later in 2014, joining a program that will benefit from her research experience with Albertson. McClish, due to graduate in 2015, is already looking forward to a similar future.
"The research we work on at Albion is limited by our facilities and resources and by the fact that students are only here for four years," she commented. "In graduate school, more focus can be placed on a particular project without having to worry about graduating halfway through the research. That is something to look forward to."