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Science on Purpose: Mosquitoes – if you can’t trick ‘em, track ‘em

For centuries, these blood-sucking pests have been the thorn in the rose of perfect summer weather, so it’s no surprise that this past month saw attacks on the insect from two scientific teams researching on two different continents.

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By Dessa Bayrock (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: July 17, 2013

The summer season has finally bloomed, but with the rising heat and humidity comes a less-loved side effect: mosquitoes.

For centuries, these blood-sucking pests have been the thorn in the rose of perfect summer weather, so it’s no surprise that this past month saw attacks on the insect from two scientific teams researching on two different continents.

TRICK ‘EM

Dr. James Logan spearheaded research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which focused on developing a way to trap malaria-infected mosquitoes using the odor of smelly feet. The team’s studies showed that mosquitoes infected with the disease are far more attracted to human body odour, which Logan speculates may reflect just how much malaria parasites can manipulate their mosquito hosts.

Malaria kills approximately 600,000 people a year, and about one per cent of mosquitos are infected with malaria.

As part of their mosquito studies, the team wrapped human subjects in foil and piped the resulting build-up of body odour into a nearby room filled with mosquitos. The mosquitos flocked to the outlet, but largely ignored a flow of fresh air.

The team also noted that while stinky feet and the smell of some strong cheeses are extremely similar, mosquitoes can accurately distinguish between the two and ignore the distraction of cheese.

“You have to get the mixture, ratios and concentrations of those chemicals exactly right,” Logan noted in the National Post, “otherwise the mosquito won’t think it’s a human.”

If scientists duplicate the smell of feet, it could be used in a trap irresistible to mosquitoes. The only tolerance the pest could develop to the trap would be to ignore the smell of people entirely – which would also be a success.

TRACK ‘EM

A team of student researchers at the University of Manitoba developed an app to help track mosquito levels around the world, warning those heading outdoors just how much bug spray they should pack.

The app is titled M Tracker and is available for both iPhone and Android. In short, users note levels of mosquitoes on a scale of green (no pests) to red (heavily populated with the blood-suckers). These reports are shared with anyone else who has the app, so those planning a trip outdoors can see just how many mosquitoes they should expect.

Engineering students Rory Jacob and Chen Liu developed the app under the supervision of professor Bob MacLeod. On a basic foundation, the app shares DNA with both flu-tracking and traffic-tracking programs.

While the app originates in Winnipeg, where mosquito levels are notoriously high, it functions anywhere in the world. The team says it’s been downloaded across North America, as well as in the U.K. and Russia. The map covers the entire globe, and the rest is up to users.

“Realistically, the more users the better because this is a user-driven app,” Jacob told CBC. “The more people who report, the better the data is going to be.”

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