Five years of exhaustive research has yielded the key to thwarting “the most dangerous animal on the planet:” its nose.
Scientists at two American universities have pulled apart the 70 different and distinct receptors that work in a mosquito’s nose, or antennae, and let the insects navigate a deadly accurate course for human flesh.
The discovery represents a major advance in the all-out war by scientists around the world and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate malaria.
“This is a significant, quantum leap forward,” Laurence Zwiebel, professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told the Star on Tuesday. The Zwiebel lab has been working closely on mosquito research with the lab of John Carlson at Yale University. Their findings have just been published in the journal Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Mosquitos “have evolved so elegantly and so efficiently into truly the most dangerous animal on the planet,” responsible for killing millions of people with malaria, he said.
Will the discovery ever turn into a drugstore bug repellent? That’s part of the whole plan, said Zwiebel. Money from commercial repellents, which would be created by the private sector, would help pay for spreading the protective net in the developing world, he said.
What this most recent research has done is figure out that the “extraordinarily complex and highly specialized 70 receptors work together” in a mosquito to sniff out their human targets. “They can find and choose a person many, many metres away, flying upwind, no less,” said Zwiebel. (By comparison, humans have 600 receptors or more).
Once receptors were found, the scientists then had to figure out how to “hyper-excite or block” them with a new kind of repellent or attractant.
“We throw the kitchen sink at it,” said Zwiebel. “We’ll test 100,000 different things to find the one that makes the receptor so crazy, the mosquito will go away.”
Field tests in Kenya and Ghana are verifying the discoveries, with the idea of creating “no-fly zones” in buildings.
Malaria “is truly a Biblical disease that has been around forever. We’re using 21st century technology and are on the cusp of what previous generations have never been able to do.”
Will science and Gates Foundation money eradicate malaria in Zwiebel’s lifetime?
“Yeah, I do think we have a pretty good shot. This is a real world issue. Part of our agreement is that the profit has to be used to provide access to this material in the developing world.”
Vanderbilt scientists transplanted the receptors into frog eggs; Yale scientists into fruit flies. In both cases, the results create a medium that researchers can more easily work with, said Zwiebel.
“I look at mosquitos now as a truly beautiful machine that has perfected what they do. They sleep, they probably dream and they are not stupid little insects. They learn.”