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How Perfecting Bug Spray Could Save Millions of Lives

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Mosquitoes ruin countless American picnics every year, but around the world, the whine of this bloodsucking beast isn’t just irritating—it heralds an epic health problem. More than a million people die from the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever each year. Attempts to control populations via insecticides like DDT have had ruinous side effects for nature and possibly human health. Neurobiologist Leslie B. Vosshall has a different solution for stopping the insects and the spread of disease. “I believe the key to controlling mosquito behavior is to understand better how they sense us,” she says.

At their Rockefeller University lab, Vosshall and her colleagues are studying the chemical sensory processes by which mosquitoes choose hosts. How do they sense heat, humidity, carbon dioxide, and body odor? What makes some people more attractive to a mosquito than others? It takes blood and sweat to find out. To study how mosquitoes assess body odor, Vosshall and her teammates might wear nylon stockings on their arms and refrain from showering for 24 hours to create sample smells. Then comes the hard part. They insert their limbs into the insects’ den to study how mosquitoes land, bite, and feed and then they document how this changes depending on both the mosquitoes’ genetics and the particular traits of the scientists’ skin. This can mean getting anywhere from one bite to a whopping 400, depending on the experiment. Studying male mosquitoes is more pleasant; since they don’t feed on blood, the lab tests their sense of smell using honey.

Making Mutant Mosquitoes

Vosshall and her team have also begun to study how genetics contribute to mosquitoes’ choice of a host. With a bit of tinkering, she’s even created a breed that is unable to sense carbon dioxide, an important trigger for the insects. “By using genetics to make mutant mosquitoes, we can document exactly how and why this cue acts to make mosquitoes hunt humans,” Vosshall says.

Once Vosshall figures out what makes mosquitoes flock to us, she can get to work on making them leave us alone. Many of her lab’s proposed solutions sound simple enough, including bracelets that carry long-lasting repellants or traps that can reduce populations, but the breakthroughs may save millions of lives in the developing world—and a lot of itching everywhere else.

This story originally appeared in the Think Small issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue here!

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Live Smarter
Check Out This Online Database to See Which Chemicals Are in Your Tap Water
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One of the responsibilities of the Environmental Protection Agency is imposing limits on the amount of harmful chemicals allowed in tap water. But sometimes these regulations aren't enough: In many of parts of the country, Americans are drinking water that passes the legal test but could still pose a threat to their health. Fortunately, checking local water contamination levels is easy for anyone with web access.

As Fast Company reports, the Tap Water Database from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, non-partisan environmental health organization, provides the public with water-quality information on 50,000 utilities around the country. Visitors to the website can search for their local water facilities by state or zip code. Once they find those, they're directed to a list of chemicals that exceed the limits set by health professionals. Common contaminants like chloroform, nitrates, and trichloroacetic acid increase the drinker's risk of cancer if they're exposed to them over extended periods. Each report also includes chemicals that are present in the water supply but conform to the recommended health guidelines.

The tool is the only comprehensive and fully accessible database of its kind. Earlier in 2017, the website was updated for the first time in eight years with information collected from 2010 to 2015. But even if the data is a couple of years old, the resource is valuable to people who rely on their local utility for drinking water. This is especially true for people living in low-income neighborhoods where contamination levels tend to be highest.

Identifying the unwanted chemicals in your water can also help you get smart about purifying it at home. Different home purifiers are built to filter out different chemicals, which makes understanding the quality of your tap water before purchasing one essential. Here's our guide to picking the best water filter for your home.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
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George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

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