Communicating research: a case from vector molecular biology

The mosquito vector, and by extension local ecology, drives malaria transmission. So understanding vector biology is important to malaria control. Classical studies of mosquito flight range, feeding preferences, and resting habits were crucial in the development and application of control strategies. Modern vector biology research, dominated by molecular studies, has produced new tools for monitoring insecticide resistance in mosquitoes as well as identifying Anopheles sibling species among whom the potential for transmitting malaria can broadly vary.

Recently, I browsed through a malaria journal article (open access!) whose potential I have difficulty understanding. Can someone explain to me how research on variation in chromosomal inversions and their relationship with stress responses will improve malaria control? Looking carefully through the manuscript, the sole rationale that I could find was:

Polymorphism for the 2La inversion creates heterogeneity in the stress response within A.gambiae, which could directly or indirectly reduce the efficacy of vector control measures, and influence the reaction of vector populations to environmental variation including climate change.

I find this single sentence advanced by the authors both incomplete and unsatisfying. It tells you very little. So let’s think through the rationale ourselves. Understanding the ability of a vector to exploit different habitats is certainly useful – we could predict how mosquito ranges and other characteristics may change with the climate. Understanding the molecular basis of that ability might further help – if the molecular changes had a clear association with a phenotype of interest (i.e. real world characteristics of the mosquito) and were such that they could easily be monitored. Understanding polymorphisms in those molecular mechanisms and their relationship to stress response variation however is not intuitively valuable (perhaps for modelling purposes?). To be clear, my aim is not cast the research as meaningless (though it may be). Sometimes the impact of basic science take years or decades to be realized. Rather, I’m surprised the authors, and especially the reviewers, did not seek to clearly convey the value of the work. If the purpose of public health research is to improve health, then the communication of such research should describe its relevance in explicit and detailed language.


7 Responses to “Communicating research: a case from vector molecular biology”

  1. 1 Will November 13, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    I wonder if this study is interesting not because of the particular phenotype they studied, but because of the type of genomic polymorphism they looked at. Inversions are unusual changes that I imagine don’t often have fitness effects. Perhaps they’re calling attention to their possible relevance to other phenotypes that they weren’t able to look at as easily? Maybe they’re calling attention to inversion polymorphisms in general? I know that everyone seems to be obsessed with SNPs right now, mostly because they’re quick and easy.

    You do have to wonder sometimes why people study the things that they do.

  2. 2 naman November 16, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    thanks Will – I don’t know much about the fitness effects of inversions but I think your questions as to what exactly are they calling attention to underline the need to clearly communicate the research

  3. 3 Will November 17, 2009 at 9:50 am

    It almost justifies a special “why we care” section of all papers. Currently it’s usually tied into the introduction with a sentence or two saying “Disease X is a terrible disease affecting 10,000,000 people each year. Understanding inversions is ESSENTIAL to our ability to treat X.” In place of ESSENTIAL insert NECESSARY, CRITICAL, IMPERATIVE or some other big word that’s a synonym for ‘very important’. It’s funny because if you’re familiar with the area of research you actually skip over that silly paragraph because its so vapid. If you don’t know anything about the field then you just assume that the author knows what he’s talking about.

  4. 4 naman November 17, 2009 at 10:01 am

    It’s funny because its true. What I can’t understand is why the reviewers do not force the authors to elucidate their rationale. The discussion and introduction really do provide ample area to do so but maybe a distinct “Why we care” section will help us change!

  5. 5 barmak November 27, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Very good points. Thanks.

  6. 6 Jessica Lin December 1, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Or, as someone put it to me once, it’s the “So What?” question. I agree it has to be presented in a way that is comprehensible to those outside that specific area of research. The cynic in me says people do certain lines of research because they can, and they make up the so-what part later, so it’s an afterthought and that’s reflected in the write-up. But we should also remember that not everything is “public health research”.

  7. 7 naman December 2, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Jessica, I couldn’t have said it better! Just trying to give the benefit of the doubt…

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