Scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) have successfully engineered a mosquito that doesn’t immediately seek out the nearest human for a snack. They did this by altering the genes that affect the insect’s sense of smell, so that when it found itself in a space with a human and a guinea pig, it didn’t choose the human as often as an unmodified mosquito would. Additionally, when engineered mosquitoes were faced with two human arms, one of which was coated with a solution containing the insect repellent DEET, they flew equally towards both arms when normally they would stay away from the treated arm. Details of the team’s efforts were published this week in Nature.
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What’s the Big Idea?
The specific mosquito used for this research, Aedes aegypti, is the same one that transmits yellow fever and dengue. Its genome was sequenced in 2007, and shortly afterwards HHMI lead researcher Leslie Vosshall switched her studies from flies to mosquitoes in order to take advantage of the genetic engineering opportunity. “We want to know what it is about these mosquitoes that makes them so specialized for humans…then we can start having some ideas about what a next-generation repellent would look like.”