Mosquitoes choose their victims based on smell


JJ Harrison | Wikimedia Commons

Stephanie Gabriel

Some people often feel like they are being targeted by mosquitoes when they are outdoors. Chances are, the attack most likely was personal as a new study found that mosquitoes choose their victims based on scent. These flying pests seem to be drawn to specific body odors which means some people really are mosquito magnets.

Those “whose skin produces high levels of carboxylic acids” are most likely to be swarmed by mosquitoes, according to a study published in Cell. Carboxylic acids are produced in the sebum, the oily layer of skin that keeps the skin moisturized.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is notorious for spreading diseases like yellow fever, Zika virus and dengue fever. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were used in the study along with 64 human volunteers who wore nylon stockings that carried their scent on their forearms.

These stockings were then put into separate traps. Dozens of mosquitoes were released around these nylon stocking traps. The scientists then noted the most attractive stocking with the most mosquitoes swarming around it.

Mosquitoes also tend to be more attracted to pregnant women or people who have drunk a few beers, only furthering the idea that scent matters to them.

This study will not only help people recreationally, but will also help the 700 million people that become infected with mosquito-borne diseases annually. These pests are simply an inconvenience for most people but for others, they can create serious health complications. Being able to decrease the amount of mosquito attacks will consequently decrease the spread of common mosquito-borne diseases.

There may be ways in the future to add bacteria to the skin’s existing microbiome to alter one’s odor profile. A project called ReVector is being funded by the United States Department of Defense to create long-term mosquito repellents for people’s skin. Researchers on this study are interested in engineering bacteria-based skin creams that can break down carboxylic acids.

There are already products such as candles or sprays that are meant to deter mosquitoes from attacking your skin. A person’s odor profile is made up of healthy bacteria eating the acids on the skin. There currently isn’t any way to get rid of the natural oils on the skin without damaging it.

However, “there may be ways to tinker with skin bacteria and change humans’ tantalizing smells,” said Jeff Riffell, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington.

People can also simply shower more often to decrease the chemical compounds on the skin that attract mosquitoes.

Why are mosquitoes so attracted to the smell of carboxylic acids? The answer is still unknown but there may be an explanation.

“Mosquitoes probably grew to love carboxylic acids because they’re an excellent indicator that the insects have located a human,” said Maria Elena De Obaldia, a senior scientist at a biotech company and lead author of the Cell study.

It is simply in their nature to seek out that specific carboxylic acid scent.

Chances are, if a person is a mosquito magnet now, they’ll be a mosquito magnet for the rest of their life. Nonetheless, all hope is not lost as research for the future looks very promising.