Tomato compound repels mosquitos

North Carolina State University has obtained a patent for a chemical that could become a safer, more effective bug repellent.

In search of a mosquito repellant, scientists there were studying synthetic versions of a protein normally found in the gut of larval mosquitoes, where it makes the larvae stop eating at the appropriate time.

When team member R. Michael Roe looked at the molecular shape of the proteins, he noticed that their structure was similar to a compound in tomatoes that protects them from plant-eating insects.

“On a whim,” Roe says, he tested the tomato compound to see if it repelled bugs other than those that attack tomatoes. When he applied the natural chemical to food offered to cockroaches, he found the pests “would rather starve than touch it.”

When he put it on cloth in a mosquito cage, the insects flew the other way.

Insect Biotechnology of Durham, N.C., has licensed the tomato compound for new lines of repellents and recently completed tests of an ointment laced with the chemical, now known as IBI-246. Even 12 hours after being applied to a volunteer’s arm, it proved 91 percent successful at deterring landings by mosquitoes, notes company president Alan E. Brandt. “More importantly,” he told Science News, “in terms of bites, it was 100 percent repellent.” In comparison, the company’s tests of DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), the active ingredient in many current mosquito repellents, showed that after 12 hours, it inhibited landings by only 78 percent.

Moreover, Brandt notes, the tomato-based repellent is rated as less toxic than DEET, and it works against a broad range of pests, including ticks and fleas. Pending Environmental Protection Agency approval, pest-control products based on the compound, to be called SkeeterShield, could be marketed by next spring.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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