A research team from the University of Ghana is employing a new scientific technique to identify mosquitoes that transmit elephantiasis, in an effort to control the disfiguring disease. Scientists hope the technology will lead to breakthroughs in the fight against other maladies as well.

DNA bar coding is a new process which promises to help in the fight against tropical diseases by isolating populations of insect species with a role in transmitting sickness from one human to another.

In Ghana, the technology is now moving from the lab to field tests.  Scientists plan to use the bar coding technique to identify a particular species of the anopheles mosquito, an insect with a large role in transmitting tropical diseases including malaria.

The Ghanaian research team is targeting the species of anopheles which transmits the disease lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis for the grotesque swelling it causes in some of its victims. Daniel Boakye is a professor at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research at the University of Ghana, and heads the research team.

"The first objective was to look at the diversity in anopheles gambiae varieties and then see how it can be related to the control of lymphatic filariasis globally," Boakye said.

Boakye says his team will use the bar coding technique to analyze a segment of mosquito DNA, which they will then compare to a catalog of samples to determine the exact identity of the species transmitting the disease.  By isolating the population that serves as a vector (carrier) for the disease, scientists hope to better prepare communities and governments to target the spread of elephantiasis.  

Over two hundred different species of mosquitoes belong to what scientists describe as the anopheles genus.  Boakye says different species play a role in the transmission of a diverse range of tropical diseases.  With the beginning of this study, Boakye says the technique is taking a large step towards usefulness in epidemiology.

"It will move from the lab into looking at the usefulness of DNA bar coding in medical importance," Boakye said.

Boakye says successful implementation of the targeting process in fighting elephantiasis could mean a reduction in the use of pesticides, and a more eco-friendly approach to fighting endemic diseases spread by insects.

He also hopes the bar coding technology will have an impact in fighting other insect born diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa, including malaria.

"It will work with malaria because it is known that with malaria not all bugs are as efficient at transmitting the parasite," Boakye said.

Like malaria, elephantiasis is endemic in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. World health authorities have targeted the disease for eradication by 2020, largely through medications donated by large drug companies.

The drugs are meant to reduce the ability of mosquitoes to transmit the infection, but the plan has failed with certain species of anopheles mosquitoes, now the target of the bar coding initiative.

Professor Boakye says he hopes the project serves to shed light on the tremendous biodiversity displayed in the insect community, which is often overlooked by the general public.