Science may be able to trick mosquitoes into not biting us


Nature's lil vampires (Global Panorama |  Flickr

Nature’s lil vampires (Global Panorama | Flickr

Here’s some good news in mankind’s eternal war with one of its smallest and most dangerous pests.

Scientists at Texas A&M University say they’ve been able to trick mosquitoes into not biting humans by re-coding bacteria commonly found on our skin that the insects use to track us down.

In other words, researchers have figured out how to hack the germs on our skin to fake out mosquitoes.

Basically, bacteria communicate with each other in a process called “quorum sensing.” Here’s how Smithsonian describes it:

This cell-to-cell communication is used to control or prevent particular behaviors within a community, such as swarming or producing biofilm, like the formation of plaque on our teeth. To start a conversation, bacteria produce compounds that contain specific biochemical messages. The more of these compounds that are produced, the more concentrated the message becomes, until it reaches a threshold that causes a group response. Behaviors are more likely to occur as the message gets “louder”—and that makes it easy for other organisms to eavesdrop on the bacterial chatter.

The bacteria in question is called staphylococcus epidermidis, and it’s one of roughly 1,000 different kinds that are on your skin right now (gross.)

Staphylococcus epidermidis bacteria (NIAID |  Flickr

Staphylococcus epidermidis bacteria (NIAID | Flickr

In this case, the researchers were able to remove the mechanism in the bacteria that “encodes its quorum sensing system,” according to Smithsonian. As a result, skeeters can’t “hear” it.

So what does that mean for your barbecue? Bug dope could one day be obsolete.

“Bacteria are our first line of defence, and we want to encourage their proliferation. However, we may be able to produce natural repellents that will allow us to lie to mosquitoes,” said Jeffery K. Tomberlin, who’s a behavioral ecologist at the school. “We might want to modify the messages that are being released that would tell a mosquito that we are not a good host, instead of developing chemicals that can be harmful to our bacteria on our skin, or to our skin itself.”

Mosquitoes aren’t just annoying creatures — they’re also arguably the most deadly in the world. An estimated 627,000 people died of malaria in 2012, according to the World Health Organization.

Check out this video from Bill Gates, whose foundation funds malaria research.

Dan MacLeod

About Dan MacLeod

Dan MacLeod is the managing editor of the Bangor Daily News. He's an Orland native who moved to Portland in 2002 and now lives in Unity. He's been a journalist since 2008, and previously worked for the New York Post and the Brooklyn Paper.