Researchers are studying the way twins smell for clues about the genetic basis of insect appeal
When it comes to attraction, the allure can begin even before she sets eyes on you. There seems to be something about the way you—her dinner—smells from afar that makes you a desired target. While you are chatting with friends or overseeing the barbecue, that mosquito will go on the hunt and make you her next blood meal. But what makes you so attractive to tiny ankle biters?
This month a group of British researchers is launching a new investigation into the role of human genetics in this process. They are planning to collect smelly socks from 200 sets of identical and nonidentical twins, place the footwear in a wind tunnel with the bugs and see what happens next. The owners of the socks, the scientists hope, may naturally produce attractive or repellant chemicals that could become the basis for future mosquito control efforts. The researchers expect that studying the popularity of the garments the skeeters hone in on—and analyzing both the odor compounds in them and the genetics of their owners—could help. The study, which will include 100 twins each from the U.K. and from the Gambia, will start recruiting volunteers in the coming weeks.
“We know very little about the genetics of what makes us attractive to mosquitoes,” says James Logan, a medical entomologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who is leading the work. Earlier studies suggest visual, olfactory and thermal (body heat) cues all help drive mosquito attraction. “We hope this study will give us more insights into the mechanisms that help change our body odors to make us more or less attractive to mosquitos,” he says. “If we can identify important genes, perhaps we could develop a pill or medication that would allow the body to produce natural repellents to keep mosquitoes away.” The findings, he adds, could also help epidemiologists improve their models for how vulnerable certain populations may be to disease-carrying mosquitoes.