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Fruity Odorant Befuddles Mosquitoes

The food-flavoring agent ethyl pyruvate clogs odor receptors thereby hiding humans from the pesky insects

by Lauren K. Wolf
December 9, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 49

Credit: Cell
To measure a mosquito’s ability to detect human odorants, researchers at UC Riverside place an insect in a cage inside a wind tunnel and then place a dish full of an odorant some distance away. In this clip, a mosquito (left) detects glass beads coated with human foot odor (right) and flies upwind to land on the source.
Credit: Shutterstock
This is a picture of a mosquito with the structure of ethyl pyruvate.
Credit: Shutterstock

Mosquitoes locate their human meals by catching a whiff of carbon dioxide and skin odor. Scientists want to understand the workings of all the olfactory receptors insects use to detect these compounds to develop safer and more effective repellents. A research team led by Anandasankar Ray of the University of California, Riverside, has discovered that the receptors on one set of mosquito nerve cells, called the cpA neurons, not only detect CO2 plumes but also respond to human odorants (Cell 2013, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2013.11.013). After the researchers exposed mosquitoes to the inhibitor butyryl chloride, which disables the dual-response receptors on the cpA neurons, the insects could no longer find glass beads coated with human foot odor. But butyryl chloride is a reactive and toxic compound not suitable as a repellent, so the team used a custom chemical informatics program to seek alternatives. Using the structures of known cpA activators to screen about 500,000 compounds, the team hit on ethyl pyruvate, a fruity-smelling food-flavoring agent. When mosquitoes were dosed with the chemical, their attraction to a human hand decreased significantly.


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