By Madi Burakoff | Associated Press
NEW YORK – A new study has found that some people are actually “mosquito magnets” and it may have something to do with the way they smell.
Researchers have found that people who are most attractive to mosquitoes produce a lot of certain chemicals on their skin that are associated with smell. And the bad news for mosquito magnets: vampires stay loyal to their favorites over time.
“If you have high levels of this stuff on your skin, you’re going to be the one on the picnic getting all the bites,” said study author Leslie Fuschall, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York.
There is a lot of folklore about who gets bitten more, but many of the claims aren’t supported by solid evidence, Foshall said.
To put mosquito magnetism to the test, the researchers designed an experiment that pits people’s scents against one another, explained study author Maria Elena de Obaldia. Their findings were published Tuesday in the journal Cell.
They asked 64 volunteers from and around the university to wear nylon stockings around their forearms to catch their skin odors. The socks were placed in separate traps at the end of a long tube, then dozens of mosquitoes were released.
“They’ll basically flock to the sexiest topics,” De Obaldia said. “It became very clear right away.”
The scientists set up a roundabout tournament and ended up with an astonishing gap: the largest mosquito magnet was about 100 times more attractive to mosquitoes than the last one.
The experiment used the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads diseases such as yellow fever, Zika and dengue. Fossall said she expects similar results from other types, but she will need more research to confirm them.
Matt DeGinaro, a neurogeneticist at Florida International University, who was not involved in the research, said that by testing the same people over several years, the study showed that these large differences persist.
“Mosquito magnets seem to remain mosquito magnets,” DeGinaro said.
Among their favorites, researchers found a common factor: mosquito magnets have high levels of certain acids on their skin. These “lipid molecules” are part of the skin’s natural moisturizing layer, Fossall said, and people produce them in varying amounts. The healthy bacteria that live on the skin gobble up these acids and produce part of the skin’s odor profile, she said.
You can’t get rid of these acids without harming the health of your skin, too, said Fauchal, who is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and serves as a chief scientific officer. The Institute also supports the Associated Press’s Health and Science Division.
Jeff Revell, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, said the research could help find new ways to repel mosquitoes. He said there may be ways to beat skin bacteria and alter people’s confusing odors.
However, figuring out ways to fight mosquitoes isn’t easy, Revell said, because the creatures have evolved into “weak muscle machines.”
The study proved the point: The researchers also ran an experiment on mosquitoes whose genes had been modified to destroy their sense of smell. Insects still flock to the same mosquito magnet.
Mosquitoes are resilient, Fossall said. “They have many backup plans to be able to find and bite us.”
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.