New study has possible explanation why yellow fever mosquitoes favor human blood

Researchers report that the yellow fever mosquito sustains its taste for human blood thanks in part to a genetic tweak that makes it more sensitive to human odor. | Carolyn McBride, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute

The deadly yellow fever mosquito is more attracted to human odor due to a genetic change not present in its ancestors. 

Results of a new study recently reported in the journal Nature found that the yellow fever mosquito contains an odor-detecting gene in its antennae that is highly attuned to sulcatone, which is a common compound prevalent in human odor. The researchers reported that the AaegOr4 gene is more prevalent and sensitive in the human-preferring "domestic" form of the yellow fever mosquito than the "forest" form, its ancestor that typically goes after the blood of non-humans.

"The more we know about the genes and compounds that help mosquitoes target us, the better chance we have of manipulating their response to our odor," Carolyn "Lindy" McBride, an assistant professor in Princeton University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, said. 

McBride performed the study when she was a postdoctoral researcher at Rockefeller University.

Uncovering the genetic basis of changes in behavior can help scientists and researchers understand the neural pathways that carry out that behavior, in addition to helping to develop ways to stem the yellow fever mosquito's lust for human blood.

Yellow fever kills tens of thousands of people worldwide, most notably in Africa.

"At least one of the things that happened is a retuning of the ways odors are detected by the antennae," McBride added. "We don't yet know whether there are also differences in how odor information is interpreted by the brain."

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