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Mosquitoes remember human smells, but also swipes
March 18, 2018, 11:48 am

Scientists at Virginia Tech in the US are finding that there could be some truth to your grandmother's insistence that bugs prefer to bite you because you are 'sweeter'.

The study reveals that mosquitoes can rapidly learn and remember the smells of hosts and then use this information, incorporating it with other stimuli, to develop preferences for particular individuals within select vertebrate hosts.

However, the study also proved that even if an individual is deemed delicious-smelling, a mosquito's preference can shift if that person's smell is associated with an unpleasant sensation. Hosts who swat or swipe at mosquitoes or perform other defensive behaviors may be abandoned, no matter how sweet.

Researchers demonstrated that mosquitoes exhibit a trait known as aversive learning by training female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to associate odors, including human body odors, with unpleasant shocks and vibrations. Twenty-four hours later, the same mosquitoes were assessed in a Y-shaped olfactometer, in which they had to fly upwind and choose between the once- human body odor associated with unpleasant sensation in one arm of the Y-shape and a control odor in the other arm. The mosquitoes avoided the human body odor, suggesting that they had been successfully trained.

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing exactly what attracts a mosquito to a particular human as individuals are made up of unique molecular cocktails that include combinations of more than 400 chemicals. However, the study shows that mosquitoes are able to learn odors emitted by their host and avoid those that were more defensive.

"Understanding these mechanisms of mosquito learning and preferences may provide new tools for mosquito control," said one member of the study team. "For example, we could target mosquitoes' ability to learn and either impair it or exploit it to our advantage." Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are vectors for Zika fever, dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever viruses, and can be found in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world.

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