Mosquitoes are the deadliest animals on Earth and have an immense impact on human health. Around the globe, close to 700,000 people die from mosquito-borne diseases annually and countless more fall ill to them.

“We’ve been dealing with these infectious diseases for a long time, and it’s a continuous challenge,” said Zhijian “Jake” Tu, a professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Biochemistry who has been studying mosquitoes for more than 25 years. “It’s a luxury to be able to work on a topic that can help control these diseases and bridge a major gap in our understanding of mosquito biology.”

For his sustained excellence in research, education, and service in this field, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors honored Tu with the title of University Distinguished Professor. The award is a preeminent faculty rank bestowed upon members of the university faculty whose scholarly attainments have attracted national and/or international recognition. The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors honored Tu with the distinction at its March 2021 meeting.  

"Dr. Tu’s research has the potential to change lives and make a global impact through the mitigation of deadly mosquito-borne diseases," said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. "His innovative research efforts and commitment to addressing public health needs advance Virginia Tech's mission to improve the quality of life and the human condition throughout the commonwealth and world."

Zhijian Jake Tu University Distinguished Professor
Zhijian "Jake" Tu has has been studying mosquitoes for more than 25 years. Photo taken by Cameron Warren.

Tu joined the biochemistry department, which is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in 1999 and his research has spanned broad areas in mosquito molecular genetics. He has contributed to a number of mosquito genome projects since the first publication of a mosquito genome in 2002. The Tu lab has also developed novel genomic and bioinformatic methods to uncover the “dark matter” of the genome, including transposable elements and genes on the Y chromosome.

"Jake was the first hire when Virginia Tech launched an effort to develop a center of excellence in vector-borne disease research and his leadership and scientific excellence has proven to be a key feature towards achieving that goal," Dennis Dean, the department’s first University Distinguished Professor said. 

Tu and his lab mainly study two mosquito species: Anopheles stephensi, an increasingly important vector of malaria parasites, and Aedes aegypti, a primary vector of viruses including dengue, yellow fever, Zika, and chikungunya.  

The current focus of his research is to achieve effective and sustainable control of mosquito-borne infectious diseases by understanding the mechanism of sex determination. Using this knowledge, Tu and his colleagues hope to suppress the population of female mosquitoes, as they are the ones that bite humans and ultimately transmit human pathogens that cause diseases. 

Scientists have searched for the master switch for male determination for decades and Tu’s lab and collaborators were the first to discover this factor in a mosquito species in 2015. Last year, the team reported the successful conversion of female mosquitoes into fertile males by introducing this master switch in Aedes aegypti. Tu’s lab is exploring the application of converting females into males to control disease spread.

“Jake has become an internationally respected authority and expert through his groundbreaking research in biochemistry and vector-borne infectious diseases,” said Cyril R. Clarke, Virginia Tech provost.  “I’d like to congratulate Jake and all the University Distinguished Professors for the dedication, service, and contributions to elevating Virginia Tech as a leading global land-grant university.”

Over the years, Tu has been actively involved in both undergraduate and graduate education. He also has contributed to the establishment and success of the vector-borne infectious disease group at Virginia Tech, which is affiliated with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens.

Tu received his Bachelor of Science in physiology and biophysics from Beijing University in 1988 then received a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of Arizona in 1994. He obtained his first National Institutes of Health grant in 1997 and has been continuously funded by NIH since then. Tu has an outstanding publication record with more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and many papers in high-impact journals, such as Science and PNAS. He’s served on NIH panels since 2002 and is currently a member of the Vector Biology NIH Review panel. He also serves as an editor-in-chief of Insect Molecular Biology, a Royal Entomological Society journal. In 2017, Tu received the Breakthrough of the Year award from the American Committee of Medical Entomology. 

—Written by Cameron Warren