Anopheles is a genus of mosquito (Culicidae). There are approximately 400 Anopheles species, of which 30-40 transmit five different species of parasites of the genus Plasmodium that cause malaria which affects humans in endemic areas. Anopheles gambiae is one of the best known, because of its predominant role in the transmission of the most dangerous Plasmodium falciparum.
Some species of Anopheles also can serve as the vectors for canine heartworm Dirofilaria immitis, the Filariidae Wuchereria bancrofti and Brugia malayi, and viruses like the one that is the cause of O'nyong'nyong fever. Mosquitoes in other genera (Aedes, Culex) can also serve as vectors of disease agents.
Mosquito larvae have a well-developed head with mouth brushes used for feeding, a large thorax and a segmented abdomen. They don't have legs. In contrast to other mosquitoes, Anopheles larvae lack a respiratory siphon and for this reason position themselves so that their body is parallel to the surface of the water.
Larvae breathe through spiracles located on the 8th abdominal segment and therefore must come to the surface frequently. The larvae spend most of their time feeding on algae, bacteria, and other microorganisms in the surface microlayer. They dive below the surface only when disturbed. Larvae swim either by jerky movements of the entire body or through propulsion with the mouth brushes.
The larvae occur in a wide range of habitats but most species prefer clean, unpolluted water. Larvae of Anopheles mosquitoes have been found in fresh- or salt-water marshes, mangrove swamps, rice fields, grassy ditches, the edges of streams and rivers, and small, temporary rain pools. Many species prefer habitats with vegetation. Others prefer habitats that have none. Some breed in open, sun-lit pools while others are found only in shaded breeding sites in forests. A few species breed in tree holes or the leaf axils of some plants.
Like all mosquitoes, adult Anopheles have slender bodies with 3 sections: head, thorax and abdomen.
The head is specialized for acquiring sensory information and for feeding. The head contains the eyes and a pair of long, many-segmented antennae. The antennae are important for detecting host odors as well as odors of breeding sites where females lay eggs. The head also has an elongated, forward-projecting proboscis used for feeding, and two sensory palps.
The thorax is specialized for locomotion. Three pairs of legs and a pair of wings are attached to the thorax.
The abdomen is specialized for food digestion and egg development. This segmented body part expands considerably when a female takes a blood meal. The blood is digested over time serving as a source of protein for the production of eggs, which gradually fill the abdomen.
Anopheles mosquitoes can be distinguished from other mosquitoes by the palps, which are as long as the proboscis, and by the presence of discrete blocks of black and white scales on the wings. Adult Anopheles can also be identified by their typical resting position: males and females rest with their abdomens sticking up in the air rather than parallel to the surface on which they are resting.
Adult mosquitoes usually mate within a few days after emerging from the pupal stage. In most species, the males form large swarms, usually around dusk, and the females fly into the swarms to mate.
Males live for about a week, feeding on nectar and other sources of sugar. Females will also feed on sugar sources for energy but usually require a blood meal for the development of eggs. After obtaining a full blood meal, the female will rest for a few days while the blood is digested and eggs are developed. This process depends on the temperature but usually takes 2-3 days in tropical conditions. Once the eggs are fully developed, the female lays them and resumes host seeking.
The cycle repeats itself until the female dies. While females can live longer than a month in captivity, most do not live longer than 1-2 weeks in nature. Their lifespan depends on temperature, humidity, and also their ability to successfully obtain a blood meal while avoiding host defenses.
Although malaria is nowadays limited to tropical areas, most notoriously regions of sub-Saharan Africa, many Anopheles species live in colder latitudes (see this map from the CDC). Indeed, malaria outbreaks have, in the past, occurred in colder climates, for example during the construction of the Rideau Canal in Canada during the 1820s. Since then, the Plasmodium parasite (not the Anopheles mosquito) has been eradicated from first world countries.
The CDC warns, however, that "Anopheles that can transmit malaria are found not only in malaria-endemic areas, but also in areas where malaria has been eliminated. The latter areas are thus constantly at risk of re-introduction of the disease."
Some species are poor vectors of malaria, as the parasites do not develop well (or at all) within them. There is also variation within species. In the laboratory, it has been possible to select for strains of A. gambiae that are refractory to infection by malaria parasites. These refractory strains have an immune response that encapsulates and kills the parasites after they have invaded the mosquito's stomach wall. Scientists are studying the genetic mechanism for this response. It is hoped that some day, genetically modified mosquitoes that are refractory to malaria can replace wild mosquitoes, thereby limiting or eliminating malaria transmission.
On December 21, 2007, a study published in PLoS Pathogens found that the hemolytic C-type lectin CEL-III from Cucumaria echinata, a sea cucumber found in the Bay of Bengal, impaired the development of the malaria parasite when produced by transgenic A. stephensi. This could potentially be used one day to control malaria by spreading genetically modified mosquitoes refractory to the parasites, although there are numerous scientific and ethical issues to be overcome before such a control strategy could be implemented.
Once ingested by a mosquito, malaria parasites must undergo development within the mosquito before they are infectious to humans. The time required for development in the mosquito (the extrinsic incubation period) ranges from 10-21 days, depending on the parasite species and the temperature. If a mosquito does not survive longer than the extrinsic incubation period, then she will not be able to transmit any malaria parasites.
It is not possible to measure directly the life span of mosquitoes in nature. But indirect estimates of daily survivorship have been made for several Anopheles species. Estimates of daily survivorship of A. gambiae in Tanzania ranged from 0.77 to 0.84 meaning that at the end of one day between 77% and 84% will have survived.
Assuming this survivorship is constant through the adult life of a mosquito, less than 10% of female A. gambiae would survive longer than a 14-day extrinsic incubation period. If daily survivorship increased to 0.9, over 20% of mosquitoes would survive longer than a 14-day extrinsic incubation period. Control measures that rely on insecticides (e.g. indoor residual spraying) may actually impact malaria transmission more through their effect on adult longevity than through their effect on the population of adult mosquitoes.
Most Anopheles mosquitoes are crepuscular (active at dusk or dawn) or nocturnal (active at night). Some Anopheles mosquitoes feed indoors (endophagic) while others feed outdoors (exophagic). After feeding on some blood mosquitoes prefer to rest indoors (endophilic) while others prefer to rest outdoors (exophilic), though this can differ regionally based on local vector ecotype, and vector chromosomal makeup, as well as housing type and local microclimatic conditions. Biting by nocturnal, endophagic Anopheles mosquitoes can be markedly reduced through the use of insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs) or through improved housing construction to prevent mosquito entry (e.g. window screens). Endophilic mosquitoes are readily controlled by indoor spraying of residual insecticides. In contrast, exophagic/exophilic vectors are best controlled through source reduction (destruction of the breeding sites).
Insecticide-based control measures (e.g. indoor spraying with insecticides, ITNs) are the principal way to kill mosquitoes that bite indoors. However, after prolonged exposure to an insecticide over several generations, mosquitoes, like other insects, may develop resistance, a capacity to survive contact with an insecticide. Since mosquitoes can have many generations per year, high levels of resistance can arise very quickly. Resistance of mosquitoes to some insecticides has been documented with just within a few years after the insecticides were introduced. There are over 125 mosquito species with documented resistance to one or more insecticides. The development of resistance to insecticides used for indoor residual spraying was a major impediment during the Global Malaria Eradication Campaign. Judicious use of insecticides for mosquito control can limit the development and spread of resistance. However, use of insecticides in agriculture has often been implicated as contributing to resistance in mosquito populations. It is possible to detect developing resistance in mosquitoes and control programs are well advised to conduct surveillance for this potential problem.