Medical Research: What is the background for this study?
Response: People often wonder why, when they are out with their friends or family, one person seems to get ravaged by mosquitoes but others come away relatively bite free. Mosquito bites can be a nuisance to many of us but they are no trivial matter. Mosquitoes are one of the most serious threats to public health through the transmission of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, chikungunya and others.
We knew that mosquitoes rely on odour to find their hosts but until now the link between our body odour and genes had only been shown using human sniffers1. In a strictly controlled laboratory environment, we were able to present the odours of individuals in identical and non-identical twin pairs to mosquitoes allowing them following the odour stream of whichever they found to be more attractive.
Medical Research: What are the main findings?
Response: Mosquitoes are equally attracted to identical twins in a pair but with non-identical twins they display a preference for one individual.
The ability of mosquitoes to distinguish non-identical twins but not identical twins suggests a genetic basis for our odour profile, a genetic difference which plays a role in whether we get bitten more or less than others.
Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Response: This work is an interesting new discovery but, at this stage, offers no new recommendations to clinicians or patients. It is important they continue to follow the existing advice on bite prevention such as those provided on the World Health Organisation website (www.WHO.int).
Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Response: This opens up many exciting avenues of research. The first thing to address is how specific compounds in our odour profile link to specific genes. Once the associated genes are identified, we could screen individuals in different populations allowing us to more rapidly map odour profiles for different regions. Understanding variance in the population could be important for creating more accurate mathematical models of disease spread, taking into account the fact that not everybody will be bitten equally. Once we have a better understanding of the linkage between our genes and the odours we produce, it may be possible to synthesise bespoke repellents, or develop a way to manipulate our body’s production of specific repellent compounds.
It is also likely that this work will extend beyond the field of insect biology. Studies on human odour communication can now approach it with a more robust understanding of the link between our genes and our smell. It is possible that in some areas, people with an odour less attractive to mosquitoes may be more likely to escape mosquito-borne disease; if so, are we more attracted to these people as potential partners?
1Roberts, S. C., Gosling, L. M., Spector, T. D., Miller, P., Penn, D. J., & Petrie, M. (2005). Body odor similarity in noncohabiting twins. Chemical Senses, 30(8), 651-656.
MedicalResearch.com Interview with: G. Mandela Fernández-Grandon PhD (2015). Your Genes May Explain Mosquitoes’ Preference For Your Odor MedicalResearch.com