Mosquitoes may be smarter than we think!

If you think this sounds hokey…. the Virginia Tech Hokies have uncovered some startling findings when it comes to mosquitoes. A team of scientists at the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech have been conducting cutting-edge research which has lead to numerous breakthrough discoveries in mosquito science. One of their latest finds? Mosquitoes can remember specific human smells and swats, helping them learn to avoid specific people’s scents due to past experience.

If the thought of these type of mosquito lab tests makes you think of mosquitoes being conditioned as Pavlovian dogs, you might chuckle, but just think about the implications! If mosquitoes can learn to associate smells with unpleasant experiences, there is a greater chance that our swatting and movement can actually deter future attacks from that same mosquito.

Earlier this year the team from Virginia Tech had their findings published in the science journal Current Biology. Their research is promising and will likely prove beneficial as we seek to develop advanced mosquito prevention methods to thwart mosquito-borne disease.

On January 25, 2018, Virginia Tech published a press release sharing their findings, “Mosquitoes remember human smells, but also swats, Virginia Tech researchers find

Your grandmother’s insistence that you receive more bug bites because you’re ‘sweeter’ may not be that far-fetched after all, according to pioneering research from Virginia Tech scientists.

The study, published Jan. 25 in the journal Current Biology, shows that mosquitoes can rapidly learn and remember the smells of hosts and that dopamine is a key mediator of this process. Mosquitoes use this information and incorporate it with other stimuli to develop preferences for a particular vertebrate host species, and, within that population, certain individuals.

However, the study also proved that even if an individual is deemed delicious-smelling, a mosquito’s preference can shift if that person’s smell is associated with an unpleasant sensation. Hosts who swat at mosquitoes or perform other defensive behaviors may be abandoned, no matter how sweet.

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Clément Vinauger, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Chloé Lahondère, a research assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry, demonstrated that mosquitoes exhibit a trait known as aversive learning by training female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to associate odors (including human body odors) with unpleasant shocks and vibrations.

Twenty-four hours later, the same mosquitoes were assessed in a Y-maze olfactometer in which they had to fly upwind and choose between the once-preferred human body odor and a control odor. The mosquitoes avoided the human body odor, suggesting that they had been successfully trained.

Can scientists make humans smell repulsive to mosquitoes?

By taking a multidisciplinary approach and using cutting-edge techniques, including CRISPR gene editing and RNAi, the scientists were also able to identify that dopamine is a key mediator of aversive learning in mosquitoes.

For example, they targeted specific parts of the brain involved in olfactory integration by fitting mosquitoes with helmets that allowed for brain activity recordings and observations. By placing mosquitoes in an insect flight simulator and exposing the mosquitoes to various smells, including human body odors, the scientists observed how the insects, trained or not, reacted. What they saw is that the neural activity in the brain region where olfactory information is processed was modulated by dopamine in such a way that odors were easier to discriminate, and potentially learn, by the mosquitoes.

Research Finds Why Mosquitoes Have Become Attracted to Human Smell

“Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing exactly what attracts a mosquito to a particular human — individuals are made up of unique molecular cocktails that include combinations of more than 400 chemicals,” said Lahondère. “However, we now know that mosquitoes are able to learn odors emitted by their host and avoid those that were more defensive.”

“Understanding these mechanisms of mosquito learning and preferences may provide new tools for mosquito control,” said Vinauger. “For example, we could target mosquitoes’ ability to learn and either impair it or exploit it to our advantage.”

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are vectors for Zika fever, dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever viruses, and can be found in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. Vinauger and Lahondère are both affiliated with the university’s Fralin Life Science Institute, which supports vector-borne disease research as a major thrust area.

This scientific breakthrough has big implications for the future of mosquito control! However, until we can convince mosquitoes to stay away for good, we’ll still need to rely upon proven, effective mosquito control methods. If you need help keeping menacing mosquitoes out of your yard, contact DC Mosquito Squad today. We’ll help keep the bad bugs at bay!

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