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Blame Mosquito Bites on Your Genes

Apr 23, 2015 02:17 PM EDT
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As we embrace spring, and with it warmer weather, soon mosquitos will become a regular nuisance. And if you often find yourself the victim of itchy mosquito bites, it's not because you taste sweet, but in fact because of your genes.

That's according to new research published in the journal PLOS ONE, which blames an underlying genetic component for our body odor, and thus how appealing we are to mosquitoes. Ultimately, the findings could result in the development of better ways to control mosquitoes and the diseases they transmit.

Although previous studies have shown how these bloodsuckers can "smell" human prey, this study may further our understanding of how our intimate relationship with mosquitoes has evolved. Typically, people who are less attractive to mosquitoes produce natural repellents, whereas favorites of the insects do not. Now, it seems that this trait is genetically controlled.

In a series of trials using 18 identical and 19 non-identical female twins, Aedes aegypti, dengue mosquitoes, were released into a Y-shaped tube which divides into two sections. They were allowed to fly down either side towards the odor from the study participants' hands to see which twin they were most attracted to. The researchers found that identical twin pairs were more similar in attractiveness to mosquitoes than non-identical twin pairs. This suggests that genes indeed play a part when it comes to mosquito bites.

"If we understand the genetic basis for variation between individuals it could be possible to develop bespoke ways to control mosquitoes better, and develop new ways to repel them. In the future we may even be able to take a pill which will enhance the production of natural repellents by the body and ultimately replace skin lotions," senior author Dr. James Logan said in a press release.

Based on the results, it seems that mosquitos especially prefer to feast on the blood of pregnant women and people with a greater body mass. Diet is also often suggested as an explanation for being a favorite meal for mosquitos, with anecdotes about eating garlic or drinking beer to keep mosquitoes away. However, there is no clear and consistent dietary explanation.

"By investigating the genetic mechanism behind attractiveness to biting insects such as mosquitoes we can move closer to using this knowledge for better ways of keeping us safe from bites and the diseases insects can spread through bites," Logan said.

In fact, experts are currently experimenting with various ways to fight the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, such as Dengue fever or the dangerous West Nile virus. Dengue fever, for example, is a very painful disease, though it is rarely fatal, with only about one percent of all infections resulting in severe hemorrhagic conditions that kill. Chikungunya, on the other hand, is a more deadly mosquito-borne illness - one that has recently made its way across the Southern Hemisphere. Brazil has recently experienced an alarming number of cases of this harmful disease, prompting officials to look to the modification of mosquitoes for relief.

But rather than fighting the mosquitos themselves, if we can simply take humans off the menu, we may have a better chance of avoiding cases of mosquito-borne illness.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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