A new study finds that some people really are “mosquito magnets” and it probably has to do with the way they smell.
The researchers found that people who are most attractive to mosquitoes produce a lot of certain chemicals on their skin that are bound to smell. And bad news for mosquito magnets: The leeches stay true to their favorites over time.
“If you have a lot of this stuff on your skin, you’re the one at the picnic that gets all the bites,” said study author Leslie Vosshall, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York.
There’s a lot of folklore about who gets bitten more, but many claims aren’t supported by strong evidence, Vosshall said.
To put the magnetism of mosquitoes to the test, the researchers designed an experiment that tested people’s scents against each other, study author Maria Elena De Obaldia explained. Their findings were published Tuesday in the journal Cell.
They asked 64 volunteers from the university and nearby to wear nylon stockings over their forearms to trap their skin odors. The stockings were placed in separate traps at the end of a long tube, after which dozens of mosquitoes were released.
“They would basically swarm out to the most attractive subjects,” De Obaldia said. “It immediately became very clear.”
Scientists held a round-robin tournament and finished with a striking gap: The largest mosquito magnet was about 100 times more attractive to the mosquitoes than the last-place finish.
The experiment used the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads diseases such as yellow fever, Zika and dengue. Vosshall said she would expect similar results from other species, but she needed more research to confirm this.
By testing the same people for several years, the study showed that these large differences persist, said Matt DeGennaro, a neurogeneticist at Florida International University who was not involved in the study.
“Mosquito magnets seem to remain mosquito magnets,” DeGennaro said.
From the favorites, the researchers found a common factor: mosquito magnets had a high content of certain acids on their skin. These “fat molecules” are part of the skin’s natural moisturizing layer, and people produce them in varying amounts, Vosshall said. The healthy bacteria that live on the skin eat up these acids and produce some of our skin’s odor profile, she said.
You can’t get rid of these acids without also harming your skin health, said Vosshall, who is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and serves as its scientific director. The institute also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department.
But the research could help find new methods of repelling mosquitoes, said Jeff Riffell, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study. There may be ways to tinker with skin bacteria and alter people’s tantalizing scents, he said.
Still, finding ways to control mosquitoes isn’t easy, Riffell said, because the critters have evolved into “skinny, vile biters.”
The study proved this point: Researchers also did the experiment with mosquitoes whose genes had been edited to damage their sense of smell. The bugs still flocked to the same mosquito magnets.
“Mosquitoes are resilient,” Vosshall said. “They have a lot of backup plans to be able to find and bite us.”
Mosquitoes have neuronal fail-safes to ensure they can always smell people
Maria Elena De Obaldia et al, Differential attraction of mosquitoes to humans is associated with skin-derived carboxylic acid levels, Cell (2022). DOI: 10.116/j.cell.2022.09.034
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