Mosquito immunology and physiology; host-parasite interactions
Dr. Hillyer received his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison under the mentorship of Dr. Ralph M. Albrecht and Dr. Bruce M. Christensen, respectively. He then completed a post-doctoral fellowship under the mentorship of Dr. Kenneth D. Vernick (now at Institut Pasteur) at the University of Minnesota. In 2007 Dr. Hillyer moved to Nashville, TN where he established Vanderbilt University's mosquito immunology and physiology laboratory as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Arts and Science. In 2014, Dr. Hillyer was promoted to Associate Professor, with tenure.
Dr. Hillyer's long-term interests lie in the biology of pathogens in the mosquito hemocoel, focusing on aspects of physiology and immunology that limit systemic infections. In this quest, the Hillyer lab employs molecular and imaging techniques in efforts to expand our understanding of the biology of mosquito hemocytes (immune blood cells), pericardial cells (nephrocytes), and hemolymph (insect blood) propulsion in the mosquito hemocoel (body cavity). This research is expected to contribute to the development of novel pest and disease control strategies, and is of interest to vector biologists, insect physiologists, comparative immunologists, and evolutionary biologists.
In addition to research, Dr. Hillyer is committed to furthering Vanderbilt’s teaching mission. He designed and currently teaches undergraduate courses in Introduction to Biological Sciences and in Parasitology. Dr. Hillyer also mentors graduate and undergraduate students in the research laboratory, and is an active member of several national and international research societies.
Mosquitoes are cosmopolitan pests and disease vectors. For the completion of their life cycle, females of all anautogenous species are required to take a blood meal for the production of eggs. Blood feeding can cause irritation in mammals and can potentially lead to the transmission of deadly and debilitating pathogens such as <i>Plasmodium falciparum</i> (malaria), <i>Wuchereria bancrofti</i> (lymphatic filariasis), dengue fever virus, and West Nile virus. To date, the control of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases has consisted of killing the mosquito using chemical or biological agents, using drugs to treat infected individuals, and limiting vector-human contact. Although these approaches have reduced mosquito populations and disease prevalence in certain regions, their effectiveness is rapidly diminishing. Primary reasons for this include the emergence of insecticide resistance in mosquitoes and drug resistance by pathogens. Hence, because of the diminishing efficacy of current control methods, compounded by the failure to discover new insecticide replacements, drugs, and effective vaccines, it has become necessary to develop new control strategies.
The Hillyer Lab is interested in basic aspects of mosquito immunology and physiology, focusing on the mechanical and molecular bases of hemolymph (blood) propulsion, and the immunological interaction between mosquitoes and pathogens in the hemocoel (body cavity). Given that chemical and biological insecticides function in the mosquito hemocoel, and that disease-causing pathogens traverse this compartment prior to being transmitted, we expect that our research will contribute to the development of novel pest and disease control methods.