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Biology professor co-authors paper on cryptic species of insects that transmit Chagas disease

Patricia Dorn, Ph.D., was selected to have a manuscript that she contributed to about Chagas disease, “Two Distinct Triatoma dimidiata (Latreille, 1811) Taxa Are Found in Sympatry in Guatemala and Mexico,” published in the March 2009 issue of the Public Library of Science’s Journal for Neglected Tropical Diseases. Dorn served as a lead author in the study.

The manuscript describes the team’s findings in researching a cryptic species, a species that looks the same but is genetically different, of kissing bug and its involvement in carrying Chagas disease. According to Dorn and her collaborators in Guatemala and Mexico, a cryptic species of kissing bug that carries the lethal Chagas parasite was found in the same localities as the known carrier species.

By examining the DNA of kissing bugs from throughout Mexico and Central America, the research team showed that the two species co-exist in the same towns and rural areas although they do not interbreed. “It will be important to understand what is keeping them separated,” said Dorn.

Chagas disease remains the leading cause of parasitic illness in Latin America, with approximately 10 million people infected. “The best hope in curbing Chagas disease lies with controlling the kissing bugs that spread the parasite,” said Dorn.

Recently, several lines of evidence have shown that although one of the main species of kissing bugs in Mexico and Central America, Triatoma dimidiata, looks similar across its range, it hides a similar looking, but genetically quite distinct cryptic species. Dorn and her colleagues now demonstrate that this quite distinct species co-exists with the known T. dimidiata species.

“To effectively control the kissing bugs, and thus interrupt transmission of Chagas disease, it will be important to correctly identify distinct species transmitting the parasite and to then design interventions that will be effective against particular species,” said Dorn.

In the manuscript, Dorn and her colleagues reveal new tools that will easily identify this cryptic species. They also report the first finding of this cryptic species in Belize.

The authors conclude, “This study helps inform control efforts by showing where genetically distinct populations of T. dimidiata occur. It is critical to realize that there are at least two distinct T. dimidiata populations in this area (in Mexico, Guatemala. and Belize) as control measures are designed.”