A full biography and complete list of publications is available via ORCiD.
Vector-borne diseases, mostly mosquito-borne, account for >17 per cent of all infectious diseases of humans. Malaria still kills 0.5-1 million people annually, mostly children under 10, though this is lower than at the turn of the century. In contrast, disease caused by ARthropod-Borne viruses (arboviruses, eg dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses) continues to escalate, the burden falling overwhelmingly on Low-and-Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) and likely exacerbated by climate change affecting mosquito distribution. Malaria, and these ‘neglected tropical diseases’ impact development, eg Millennium Development Goals, as well as their direct human burden. Arboviruses are also among the key emerging infectious diseases/priority diseases of epidemic potential. New cost-effective, sustainable, environmentally-friendly methods for controlling mosquito-borne diseases are sorely needed.
Research in the Alphey lab focuses on genetic pest management, which is based on manipulating the genetics of target organisms to reduce the harm they do. This approach is best known in the context of mosquitoes and public health, but can also potentially be applied to agricultural pest insects and food security, or to controlling invasive species in the context of biodiversity and conservation.
Genetic pest management approaches fall into two broad classes – “population suppression”, in which the aim is to reduce the number of pests, and “population modification”, in which the aim is to reduce the harm the pests do without substantially affecting their numbers. Population suppression is quite familiar, since this is the aim of most conventional pest management, such as the use of toxic chemical pesticides. An analogy for population modification might be vaccinating the target population – not something we can do for mosquitoes, but if we could we would have a population of mosquitoes that still fill their ecological niche, still bite, but don’t transmit the vaccinated disease.
Professor Alphey pioneered the use of engineered “sterile male” mosquitoes, which will mate with wild females, reducing their reproductive potential. Sustained release of such males can cause the target population to decline and collapse. Professor Alphey co-founded Oxitec Ltd to develop this powerful approach, and led successful field trials in multiple countries. Research in the lab focuses on improved sterile-male methods, and also on “gene drives”. “Gene drive” is a phenomenon of biased inheritance in which the prevalence of a genetic element (natural or synthetic) or specific alternate form of a gene (allele) is increased, even in the presence of some fitness cost. A gene drive is a genetic system that can do this, ie can bias inheritance in its own favour. This potentially allows desired harm-reduction effects to be achieved with the release of fewer insects than with sterile-male methods, and for those effects to last longer. A particular interest is in “local” gene drives – ones which will establish in a target population but not spread substantially beyond that population.
The third main area of research relates to ways to reduce the ability of a mosquito to spread disease – ‘genetic vaccination’ to follow the analogy above. Several projects various focus on genes that prevent virus replication, or genetically-encoded virus sensors that can detect and respond to infection.
My laboratory offers projects related to our ongoing research developing new tools and methods for genetic pest management, primarily aimed at controlling neglected tropical diseases. Check our recent papers for more detail about what we do and how we do it. Projects tend to focus on transgenic mosquitoes, as experience has shown this to be the most suitable area. Students work day to day with more experienced lab members on laboratory-based projects – we have relatively few computer-based projects. Project students are expected to participate in lab activities such as lab and project team meetings and contribute to discussions about their research.
Self funded PhD applications welcome.
Before moving to the University of York I was at a research institute, and before that in industry. My teaching has therefore focused on postgraduate students, both PhD students (industry-academic partnerships while in industry) and MSc and undergraduate project students. We have also hosted numerous international students and more experienced scientists looking for training.
Our laboratory takes a synthetic biology approach to developing modified insects with specific novel traits. This involves a wide range of methods from molecular biology and genetics through to mathematical modelling, ecology, cell biology, virology and other disciplines. In part because of this range, we have developed strong collaborations with other groups that specialise in some of these areas.