While you are likely familiar with the annoying experience of being a mosquito’s ‘meal of the day’, more is going on behind the scenes of that insect bite than meets the eye.  Mosquitoes, which are drawn to human scent and breath, require proteins from the blood of their victims to develop their eggs and reproduce. This sounds harmless enough, but mosquitoes also excel at picking up blood-borne diseases like malaria and passing them on from person to person, leading to over a million deaths per year.  Now, scientists may have found a drug that can reduce this public health burden by making mosquitoes less likely to bite humans.

To tackle this challenge, Leslie Vosshall’s group at The Rockefeller University took advantage of a panel of previously developed drugs that mimic the action of a natural appetite controlling molecule called neuropeptide Y.  Vosshall and colleagues screened through over 250,000 of these drugs, eventually landing on one that had the greatest effect on mosquito biting behavior, referred to as compound 18. When mosquitoes were fed a saline solution supplemented with compound 18, they were significantly less drawn to human body odor than mosquitoes fed normal saline.  Importantly, they were also less likely to bite lab mice with which they were housed, indicating that treatment with compound 18 translates into decreased biting overall by mosquitoes.

To translate this discovery into reduced  human disease transmission, scientists could work with engineers to design mosquito lures that contain saline supplemented with compound 18.  This may be far off, however, as scientists still need to find ways to prolong compound 18’s effect, and produce it at large scales. Other groups have devised alternative methods to reduce disease transmission by using hotly debated gene drives to engineer disease-resistant mosquitoes, or reduce mosquito populations overall.  Potential risks of genetically engineering mosquitoes include the evolution of new disease strains that can overpower the mosquitoes’ newfound resistance, and changes in the overall ecosystem.  Tweaking the behavior of existing mosquitoes through diet may offer a more ecologically responsible solution to our mosquito problems.

For more information:

  • To learn about the use of gene drives to reduce disease transmission by mosquitoes, check out this article, previously published by SITN.
  • A summary of the biological and geopolitical debate around gene drive technology can be found in this article, published by Vox.  

Managing Correspondent: Benjamin Andreone

News Article: A New Way to Keep Mosquitoes From Biting. The Atlantic

Original Article: Small-Molecule Agonists of Ae. aegypti Neuropeptide Y Receptor Block Mosquito Biting. Cell

Image Credit: Pixabay

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