Researchers found that people who are most attractive to mosquitoes produce many chemicals on their skin that are linked to smell. And bad news for mosquito magnets: bloodsuckers stay loyal to their favorites over time.
“If you have high levels of this stuff on your skin, you’re going to picnic all the bites,” said study author Leslie Voshal, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York.
Voshal said there is a lot of folklore about who gets bitten more, but many claims are not backed up with strong evidence.
To put mosquito magnetism to the test, the researchers devised an experiment pitting people’s scents against each other, explained study author Maria Elena de O’Baldia. Their findings were published Tuesday in the journal room,
They asked 64 volunteers from the university and nearby to wear nylon stockings around their forearms to smell their skin. Stockings were put into individual nets at the end of the long tube, then dozens of mosquitoes were released.
“They’ll basically flock to the most engaging subjects,” D’Obaldia said. “It immediately became very clear.”
The scientists conducted a round-robin tournament and ended with a striking difference: The largest mosquito magnet was about 100 times more attractive to mosquitoes than the last-place finisher.
In this experiment, the Aedes aegypti mosquito was used, which spreads diseases like yellow fever, Zika and dengue. Voshal said she expects similar results for other types, but more research would be needed to confirm.
Testing the same people over several years, the study showed that these large differences stick around, said Matt DeGenaro, a neurogeneticist at Florida International University who was not involved in the research.
“Mosquito magnets remain mosquito magnets,” DeGenero said.
Among the favorites, the researchers found a common factor: The mosquito magnet had higher levels of certain acids on its skin. These “greasy molecules” are part of the skin’s natural moisturizing layer, and people produce them in varying amounts, Voshal said. Healthy bacteria living on the skin eat these acids and form part of our skin’s odor profile, she said.
You can’t get rid of these acids without harming your skin’s health, said Voshal, who is paid for by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and serves as its chief scientific officer. The institute also supports the Associated Press’ Department of Health and Science.
But the research could help find new ways to repel mosquitoes, said Jeff Reiffel, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study. There may be ways to manipulate skin bacteria and change the tantric odor of humans, he said.
Still, figuring out ways to fight mosquitoes isn’t easy, Riefel said, because the critters have evolved as “lean, mean-biting machines.”
The study proved this point: The researchers also experimented with mosquitoes whose genes had been edited to damage the sense of smell. Insects still used to come near the same mosquito magnet.
“Mosquitoes are resilient,” Voshal said. “They have multiple backup plans to be able to find us and bite us.”
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