Margus Varjak, Research Associate, Marie Curie Fellow, Kohl lab
Tell me about your background?
I did my bachelor and master studies in gene technology in Estonia at the University of Tartu. Following that, I continued in a PhD program with my supervisor Prof Andres Merits. As a PhD student, I studied mostly the replication complexes of alphaviruses in mammalian cells. The majority of alphaviruses are being transmitted by mosquitos. Currently, the most “famous” alphavirus is chikungunya virus, its epidemics began approximately 10 years ago. Although I started studying mosquito-transmitted viruses in mammalian systems, I then decided that I also wanted to study how viruses behave in the mosquitoes.
Why did you get into this field of research?
I find it intriguing how a virus hijacks the host cell and uses its machinery for its own good; and also, how the host fights back. I became interested in viruses during my bachelor studies and the University of Tartu was a good place to pursue that interest to obtain a PhD. After studying viruses in mammalian systems, I decided to investigate, how a virus replicates in insect cells. When I started work at the CVR, I first joined Dr Esther Schnettler lab before moving into the lab group of Prof Alain Kohl.
What are you working on?
I managed to obtain my own fellowship, named after Marie Skłodowska-Curie. Currently, my work focuses on understanding how mosquitoes control virus infection. If in mammalian cells alphavirus infection is cytopathic (cells die), and usually the mammalian immune system tries to eradicate the infection from the whole organism. The mosquito cells use a clever genetic interference mechanism to control the infection, and although this is strong enough to minimise disease, the virus is not removed from the organism. That is the main reason why mosquitoes transmit a virus from one host (animal/human) to another.
Why is world mosquito day important?
Mosquitoes transmit several deadly diseases, including Zika virus, dengue virus, chikungunya virus, Japanese encephalitis virus and many others. These diseases cause great medical and economic damage for affected societies. Several billion people live in areas, where the risk is at its highest. So it is important to develop different approaches to control virus spread and to develop vaccines.