The flowery scent of a Zika or dengue infection lures mosquitoes

Mice and humans infected with dengue emit acetophenone, a mosquito-attractor

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (shown) are attracted to the scent of a chemical that comes from mice infected with dengue or Zika virus, a study shows.

NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Some mosquito-borne viruses turn mice into alluring mosquito bait.

Mice infected with dengue or Zika viruses — and people infected with dengue — emit a flowery, orange-smelling chemical that tempts hungry mosquitoes, researchers report June 30 in Cell. In mice, the infections spur the growth of skin-inhabiting bacteria that make the chemical, drawing in bloodsucking Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that could then transmit the viruses to new hosts, including humans.

Previous studies showed that other mosquito species prefer to feed on animals carrying the parasite that causes malaria (SN: 2/9/17). But it was unknown whether the same was true for viruses such as dengue or Zika, says Gong Cheng, a microbiologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

The chemical acetophenone — which to humans smells like orange blossom — may be that lure. Mice infected with dengue or Zika viruses give off approximately 10 times more acetophenone and attract more mosquitoes than uninfected animals, Cheng and colleagues found. People infected with dengue similarly release more of the chemical than healthy people. Samples of odors taken from the armpits of infected people also created potent mosquito magnets when smeared on filter paper attached to a volunteer’s palm.

Acetophenone typically comes from bacteria. Researchers found that Bacillus bacteria on mice were the likely culprits producing the chemical. An infection stops mice from making an antimicrobial protein called RELMα, allowing the acetophenone-emitting microbes to flourish.

But a component of some acne medications can bring back RELMα in mice, the team found. Infected animals fed a derivative of vitamin A called isotretinoin produced less acetophenone and become less attractive mosquito targets.   

It’s possible that giving people isotretinoin could help reduce virus transmission among people by hiding infected people from the bloodsucking insects, Cheng says. He and colleagues are planning to test the strategy in Malaysia, where dengue circulates.

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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