Comparative Analysis of Heterochromatin in the Anopheles gambiae Complex

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Virginia Tech


Mosquito borne diseases continue to be a big threat to human health worldwide. Despite using various vector control methods, we lose a great number of lives to this malicious disease in tropical and subtropical countries each year. Not surprisingly, mosquito is considered as the deadliest animal on the earth, because mortality rates from mosquito-vectored infections only lag behind other major diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. Current approaches of vector control are mostly limited to using insecticidal bed nets, thus novel techniques are required to prevent a staggering loss to human health and quality of life. Advances in the genome sequencing in the past decade have helped to uncover numerous secrets of diverse genomes. The genome of malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae was first sequenced in 2002 and since then has been updated to include additional scaffolds, their orientations and correction of mis-assemblies. Yet, the greatest challenge remains in assembling the heterochromatin regions, that are repeat rich part and contain relatively low-gene density. Although previously neglected by scientific studies due to its characteristic paucity of genes, heterochromatin is now recognized to be crucial for several processes such as cell viability, chromosome pairing, meiosis, longevity etc. It is therefore not surprising that heterochromatin comprises of a significant portion of the genome in many species. The efforts to analyze the genome of malaria mosquito in order to identify potential new leads for vector control warrant a better understanding of the heterochromatin.

Mosquitoes diploid chromosome number equal 6. While autosomes 2 and 3 are submetacentric and present in both sexes, females are homogametic with XX and males are heterogametic with XY sex chromosomes. To achieve a better understanding of the Anopheles heterochromatin, we investigated heterochromatic region of the X chromosome. Despite one arm of the X chromosome being completely heterochromatic, few studies have investigated the molecular content of this region. Protocols were developed for performing fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) on mitotic X chromosomes in An. gambiae. Using cytogenetics and molecular biology techniques, we characterized the X chromosome heterochromatin in members of the An. gambiae complex. Specific satellite DNA and 18S ribosomal DNA probes (major components of heterochromatin) were mapped to X chromosomes enabling their differentiation and characterization in the An. gambiae complex. Microarray studies have highlighted the importance of X chromosome during investigation of nascent species An. gambiae and An. coluzzii. Here for the first time qualitative differences in heterochromatin in between nascent species are described. Cytogenetic idiograms are developed as to include the molecular and qualitative differences between the species of the An. gambiae complex. These idiograms are expected to provide a better resolution of the X chromosome heterochromatin for comparison in major malaria vectors, closing some of the gaps present due to poor sequencing of unassembled repeat rich regions in An. gambiae complex.

The current understanding of Y chromosome for transgenic manipulation is poor and limited to very few genes. Due to its near total heterochromatic composition, it is the hardest part of the genome to assemble. In collaboration with other researchers, the Y chromosome content was characterized among sibling species of the An. gambiae complex. Our data revealed the swift changes the Y chromosome has undergone in a relatively short evolutionary time period. These include a rapid rate of turnover not only in heterochromatin but also in euchromatin. In addition to previously described repeats, a novel highly repetitive element called Zanzibar was discovered and mapped to the males of various Anopheles sibling species. Our data can form the basis for evolutionary studies in heterochromatin for male mosquitoes within the An. gambiae complex while also help identify novel targets to create successful transgenic male populations. Along with the X chromosome heterochromatin, to our knowledge this is the most extensive contribution to improve the understanding of mitotic chromosome heterochromatin in malaria mosquitoes.

This study also investigated if epigenetics play role in mosquito development, fecundity and heterochromatin formation. DNA methylation, histone modifications and small noncoding RNAs are among the epigenetic mechanisms scrutinized in mammals. However, knowledge about epigenetic mechanisms and their effects is sparse in mosquitoes. A protocol for testing the various effects of epigenetics on different stages of malaria mosquito was developed. An epigenetic drug was utilized to probe the effects on immature and adult malaria mosquitoes. Different concentrations of DZNep, a histone methyltransferase inhibitor, were administered to An. coluzzii larvae. Total survivorship and pupation were compared for treated and untreated groups. The drug was also administered to adult blood feeding females to determine any effects on fecundity and egg morphology, revealing a negative association with an increase in drug concentration. A dose dependent decrease in SAH hydrolase concentration in An. coluzzii was also noticed. These results suggest epigenetics plays a critical role in mosquito pupation and ovarian development. Our work lays the groundwork for future investigations into the field of epigenetics in mosquitoes by revealing its effect on several important developmental stages in malaria mosquitoes.

Although genomics and next-gen sequencing technology have come a long way in the last decade since the first Anopheles genome was sequenced, considerable gaps still exist in case characterization of heterochromatin function in an organism. Through our work, we have endeavored to elucidate a few of the major roles that heterochromatin may play in organization, evolution and adaptation of the malaria mosquitoes.



Anopheles gambiae, heterochromatin, sex chromosome