New synthetic skin may unlock blood-sucking secrets of mosquitoes

The 3D-printed skin can help scientists study how mosquitoes transmit deadly diseases.


Mosquitoes carry several deadly pathogens transmitted while feeding on blood through the skin. Studying mosquito feeding behavior could elucidate countermeasures to mitigate biting. Although this type of research has existed for decades, there has yet to be a compelling example of a controlled environment to test the impact of multiple variables on mosquito feeding behavior.

The future of understanding how mosquitoes transmit dangerous diseases and the most efficient insect repellents may lie in the Development of hydrogels, artificial skin patches that resemble gelatin. This research is being conducted by Rice and Tulane universities. Hydrogels do away with the necessity for both human and animal testing to provide these answers.

Scientists have already been using the hydrogel at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, where the insectary produces more than 1,000 mosquitoes a week, and a 3D printer creates hydrogels. Rice University bioengineers developed the hydrogel material and a machine-learning software that analyzes videos of feeding mosquitoes to identify patterns.

According to a recent study published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, the hydrogels were discovered to produce a more consistent environment for mosquito testing regardless of species. Testing revealed that mosquitoes were deterred from feeding on the hydrogels without repellant by DEET and a plant-based repellant comprised of lemon and eucalyptus oils.

Dawn Wesson, associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said, “It’s a huge game changer. If we can study how they (mosquitoes) feed, what they do in the feeding process, we can better understand their potential for transmitting diseases and possibly do things to stop them from feeding.”

“By efficiently producing hydrogels with different blood vessel patterns, the ability to study the mechanics of disease transmission and test new types of repellants has increased exponentially. Each testing chamber has cameras that record the mosquitoes’ feeding patterns. Artificial intelligence is used to track and sort common bite locations and how long it takes to feed.”

“While mosquito saliva is thought to play a crucial role in disease transmission, questions remain about the process.”

“If we can study that process more fine-scaled way without using animals, we can potentially interrupt transmission, which would have a very large impact. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of what we can do with this product.”

Omid Veiseh, the study’s corresponding author and an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, said the hydrogel system could be scaled up to test or discover new repellents, study mosquito behavior more broadly and open the door for testing in labs that couldn’t previously afford it.

“It provides a consistent and controlled observation method,” Veiseh said“The hope is researchers will be able to use that to identify ways to prevent the spread of disease in the future.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Kevin Janson et al. Development of an automated biomaterial platform to study mosquito feeding behavior. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. DOI: 10.3389/fbioe.2023.1103748