Why mosquitoes are especially good at smelling you

Hiding human odor from the bloodsucking insects is harder than we thought

A close-up of an Aedes aegypti mosquito

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have redundant ways of detecting human smells, making the insects’ attraction to us hard to break, a study suggests.

Joao Paulo Burini/Moment/Getty Images

Some mosquitoes have a near-foolproof thirst for human blood. Previous attempts to prevent the insects from tracking people down by blocking part of mosquitoes’ ability to smell have failed. A new study hints it’s because the bloodsuckers have built-in workarounds to ensure they can always smell us.

For most animals, individual nerve cells in the olfactory system can detect just one type of odor. But Aedes aegypti mosquitoes’ nerve cells can each detect many smells, researchers report August 18 in Cell. That means if a cell were to lose the ability to detect one human odor, it still can pick up on other scents.

The study provides the most detailed map yet of a mosquito’s sense of smell and suggests that concealing human aromas from the insects could be more complicated than researchers thought.

Repellents that block mosquitoes from detecting human-associated scents could be especially tricky to make. “Maybe instead of trying to mask them from finding us, it would be better to find odorants that mosquitoes don’t like to smell,” says Anandasankar Ray, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the work. Such repellents may confuse or irritate the bloodsuckers and send them flying away (SN: 9/21/11; SN: 3/4/21).

Effective repellents are a key tool to prevent mosquitoes from transmitting disease-causing viruses such as dengue and Zika (SN: 7/11/22). “Mosquitoes are responsible for more human deaths than any other creature,” says Olivia Goldman, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York City. “The better we understand them, the better that we can have these interventions.”  

Mosquitoes that feed on people home in on a variety of cues when hunting, including body heat and body odor. The insects smell using their antennae and small appendages close to the mouth. Using three types of sensors in olfactory nerve cells, they can detect chemicals such as carbon dioxide from exhaled breath or components of body odor (SN: 7/16/15).

In previous work, researchers thought that blocking some sensors might hide human scents from mosquitoes by disrupting the smell messages sent to the brain (SN: 12/5/13). But even those sensor-deprived mosquitoes can still smell and bite people, says neurobiologist Margo Herre also of Rockefeller University.

So Goldman, Herre and colleagues added fluorescent labels to A. aegypti nerve cells, or neurons, to learn new details about how the mosquito brain deciphers human odors. Surprisingly, rather than finding the typical single type of sensor per nerve cell, the team found that individual mosquito neurons appear more like sensory hubs.

Genetic analyses confirmed that some of the olfactory nerve cells had more than one type of sensor. Some cells produced electrical signals in response to several mosquito-attracting chemicals found in humans such as octenol and triethyl amine — a sign the neurons could detect more than one type of odor molecule. A separate study published in April in eLife found  similar results in fruit flies, which suggests such a system may be common among insects.

It’s unclear why having redundant ways of detecting people’s odors might be useful to mosquitoes. “Different people can smell very different from one another,” says study coauthor Meg Younger, a neurobiologist at Boston University. “Maybe this is a setup to find a human regardless of what variety of human body odor that human is emitting.”

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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