Nav: Home

Why do mosquitoes choose us? Lindy McBride is on the case

July 02, 2019

Carolyn "Lindy" McBride is studying a question that haunts every summer gathering: How and why are mosquitoes attracted to humans?

Few animals specialize as thoroughly as the mosquitoes that carry diseases like Zika, malaria and dengue fever.

In fact, of the more than 3,000 mosquito species in the world, most are opportunistic, said McBride, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. They may be mammal biters, or bird biters, with a mild preference for various species within those categories, but most mosquitoes are neither totally indiscriminate nor species-specific. But McBride is most interested in the mosquitoes that scientists call "disease vectors" -- carriers of diseases that plague humans -- some of which have evolved to bite humans almost exclusively.

She studies several mosquitoes that carry diseases, including Aedes aegypti, which is the primary vector for dengue fever, Zika and yellow fever, and Culex pipiens, which carries West Nile virus. A. aegypti specializes in humans, while C. pipiens is less specialized, allowing it to transmit West Nile from birds to humans.

"It's the specialists that tend to be the best disease vectors, for obvious reasons: They bite a lot of humans," said McBride. She's trying to understand how the brain and genome of these mosquitoes have evolved to make them specialize in humans -- including how they can distinguish us from other mammals so effectively.

To help her understand what draws human-specialized mosquitoes to us, McBride compares the behavior, genetics and brains of the Zika mosquito to an African strain of the same species that does not specialize in humans.

In one line of research, she investigates how animal brains interpret complex aromas. That's a more complicated proposition than it first appears, since human odor is composed of more than 100 different compounds -- and those same compounds, in slightly different ratios, are present in most mammals.

"Not any one of those chemicals is attractive to mosquitoes by itself, so mosquitoes must recognize the ratio, the exact blend of components that defines human odor," said McBride. "So how does their brain figure it out?"

She is also studying what combination of compounds attracts mosquitoes. That could lead to baits that attract mosquitoes to lethal traps, or repellants that interrupt the signal.

Most mosquito studies in recent decades have been behavioral experiments, which are very labor intensive, said McBride. "You give them an odor and say, 'Do you like this?' and even with five compounds, the number of permutations you have to go through to figure out exactly what the right ratio is -- it's overwhelming." With 15 or 20 compounds, the number of permutations skyrockets, and with the full complement of 100, it's astronomical.

To test the odor preference of mosquitoes, McBride's lab has primarily used guinea pigs, small mammals with a different blend of many of the same 100 odor compounds of humans. Researchers gather their odor by blowing air over their bodies, and they then present mosquitoes with a choice between eau de guinea pig and a human arm. Human-specialized "domestic" A. aegypti mosquitoes will go toward the arm 90 to 95 percent of the time, said McBride, but the African "forest" A. aegypti mosquitoes are more likely to fly toward the guinea pig aroma.

In another recent experiment, then-senior Meredith Mihalopoulos of the Class of 2018 recruited seven volunteers and did "preference tests" with both forest and domestic A. aegypti mosquitoes. She let the mosquitoes choose between herself and each of the volunteers, finding that some people are more attractive to the insects than others. Then Alexis Kriete, a research specialist in the McBride lab, analyzed the odor of all the participants. They showed that while the same compounds were present, each human was more similar to each other than to the guinea pigs.

"There's nothing really unique about any animal odor," said McBride. "There's no one compound that characterizes a guinea pig species. To recognize a species, you have to recognize blends."

The McBride lab will be expanding to include other mammals and birds in their research. Graduate student Jessica Zung is working with farms and zoos to collect hair, fur, feather and wool samples from 50 animal species. She hopes to extract odor from them and analyze the odors at a Rutgers University facility that fractionates odors and identifies the ratio of the compounds. By inputting their odor profiles into a computational model, she and McBride hope to understand how exactly mosquitoes may have evolved to distinguish humans from non-human animals.

McBride's graduate student Zhilei Zhao is developing an entirely novel approach: imaging mosquito brains at very high resolutions to figure out how a mosquito identifies its next victim. "What combination of neural signals in the brain cause the mosquito to be attracted or repelled?" McBride asked. "If we can figure that out, then it's trivial to screen for blends that can be attractive or repellant. You put the mosquito up there, open up its head, image the brain, pop one aroma after another and watch: Does it hit the right combination of neurons?"

Key to that study will be the imaging equipment provided by Princeton's Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics, said McBride. "We can walk over there and say we want to image this, at this resolution, with this orientation, and a few months later, the microscope is built," she said. "We could have bought an off-the-shelf microscope, but it would have been so much slower and so much less powerful. Help from Stephan Thiberge, the director of the Bezos Center, has been critical for us."

McBride began her biology career studying evolution in butterflies, but she was lured to disease vector mosquitoes by how easy they are to rear in the lab. While the butterflies McBride studied need a year to develop, A. aegypti mosquitoes can go through an entire life cycle in three weeks, allowing for rapid-turnaround genetic experiments.

"That's what first drew me to mosquitoes," said McBride. "One of the surprises for me has been how satisfying it is that they have an impact on human health. That's certainly not why I got into biology -- I was studying birds and butterflies in the mountains, as far away from humans as I could get -- but I really appreciate that element of mosquito work now.

"But what is still as exciting is how easily we can manipulate mosquitoes to test hypotheses about how new behaviors evolve," she continued. "We can create transgenic strains, we can knock out genes, we can activate neurons with light. All these things have been done in model systems, like mouse and fly, but never in a non-model organism, never in an organism -- I'm showing my bias here -- with such interesting ecology and evolution."
-end-


Princeton University

Related Mosquitoes Articles:

In urban Baltimore, poor neighborhoods have more mosquitoes
A new study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology reports that in Baltimore, Maryland, neighborhoods with high levels of residential abandonment are hotspots for tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus).
Researchers use light to manipulate mosquitoes
Scientists at the University of Notre Dame have found that exposure to just 10 minutes of light at night suppresses biting and manipulates flight behavior in the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, the major vector for transmission of malaria in Africa.
Mosquitoes that spread Zika virus could simultaneously transmit other viruses
A new study led by Colorado State University found that Aedes aegypti, the primary mosquito that carries Zika virus, might also transmit chikungunya and dengue viruses with one bite.
Insecticide-induced leg loss does not eliminate biting in mosquitoes
Researchers at LSTM have found that mosquitoes that lose multiple legs after contact with insecticide may still be able to spread malaria and lay eggs.
New study sheds light on how mosquitoes wing it
The unique mechanisms involved in mosquito flight have been shared for the first time in a new Oxford University collaboration, which could inform future aerodynamic innovations, including tiny scale flying tech.
More Mosquitoes News and Mosquitoes Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans
More than test scores or good grades — what do kids need to prepare them for the future? This hour, guest host Manoush Zomorodi and TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, in and out of the classroom. Guests include educators Olympia Della Flora and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#535 Superior
Apologies for the delay getting this week's episode out! A technical glitch slowed us down, but all is once again well. This week, we look at the often troubling intertwining of science and race: its long history, its ability to persist even during periods of disrepute, and the current forms it takes as it resurfaces, leveraging the internet and nationalism to buoy itself. We speak with Angela Saini, independent journalist and author of the new book "Superior: The Return of Race Science", about where race science went and how it's coming back.