Do Mosquitoes Love You? It Could Be Genetic


Image Credit: Fernández-Grandon et al., PLOS ONE

When it comes to choosing a meal, mosquitoes may see some people as a bland bowl of whole grain cereal, while a select number of unlucky folks stand out like a giant, cheese-oozing pizza. The difference is in how you smell: Certain body odors are just more attractive to a mosquito on the prowl. But research published in PLOS ONE in 2015 suggests that your likelihood of getting bitten by a mosquito could be yet another thing you can blame on your parents: Your attractiveness to mosquitoes might be genetic.

To determine whether mosquito attraction might have a genetic component, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied the appeal of 18 identical and 19 fraternal twins (as a control mechanism, all were post-menopausal women, which the researchers said would "eliminate the variation introduced by sex or phase of menstruation") to female Aedes aegypti mosquitos, the species that carries the viruses for yellow fever and Dengue. To do so, the participants stuck their arms in a lab device called a “Y-tube olfactometer,” which allows the mosquito to choose between two divergent paths leading to the tasty hand of a human test subject. 

Image Credit: Fernández-Grandon et al., PLOS ONE

Identical twins (who come from the same egg and are more genetically similar than non-identical twins) proved to be more similar in their rates of attractiveness to the mosquitos than fraternal twins, suggesting that there may be a genetic underpinning to the body odors that attract or repel biting insects. 

Granted, the results of this pilot study aren’t quite powerful enough to make a definitive case for a mosquito-bite inheritance. And your parents wouldn’t be solely responsible for your itching: Studies suggest that pregnancy, body mass, and even beer consumption may also make people more attractive to certain species of mosquitos.

Twins using the Y-tube olfactometer. Image Courtesy London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

But the idea is, if we can pin down the genetic aspects of mosquito attraction, we may also be able to find new ways to prevent mosquito bites. Aside from the obvious annoyance of constant itching, mosquitos spread deadly diseases (by some estimates, the mosquito is the most deadly animal on Earth). If there really is a genetic component to our susceptibility to mosquito bites, we could better tailor mosquito repellents to individual differences. 

“In the future we may even be able to take a pill which will enhance the production of natural repellents by the body and ultimately replace skin lotions,” senior author James Logan suggested in a press release.

[h/t: Eurekalert]