Scientists discover how mosquitoes ‘smell’ humans

A scientific study explains how mosquitoes detect the smell of human beings. This new information could make it easier to control these insects.

Summer evenings often rhyme with mosquitoes. Despite all the precautions, these insects always seem to find a way to come and sting us. To better understand this unpleasant phenomenon, scientists have discovered by what means these insects can detect humans so well.

A study published in the scientific journal Cell explains that their olfactory system is more complex than that of other animals. In addition to detecting body heat, they have receptors in their antennae. Their brain then processes these sensations in particular ways.

Unique neurons compared to other animals

“We found a real difference in how mosquitoes encode the smells they encounter, compared to what we knew about other animals,” says Meg Younger, assistant professor of biology at Boston University and the one of the researchers of the study, with the British daily The Guardian.

“We thought that mosquitoes followed the central principle of olfaction: only one type of receptor is expressed in each neuron. Instead, we observed that different receptors respond to different odors in the same neuron,” she continues.

This specificity allows these insects to continue to smell odors, even by losing certain receptors. Researchers at Rockefeller University in New York, for example, had found that mosquitoes could continue to smell human beings, despite the modification of their genome.

Towards new disease control tools?

This research on the brain and the olfactory system of mosquitoes helps to better understand how to better protect oneself from their bites. More than a simple nuisance, this family of insects transmits serious diseases, such as dengue or malaria, in several regions of the world. Tiger mosquitoes, vectors of the Zika virus and Chikungunya, are particularly monitored each year.

Dr Marta Andres Miguel, of University College London, judged with the Guardian that the results of this new study are a “remarkable discovery, not only from a biological point of view, but also in the fight against diseases”. Because behind this new knowledge, lies a hope: that of developing new types of traps or mosquito repellents, and limiting the progression of infections.

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