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Body Odor May Explain Why Mosquitoes Prefer Certain People

An <em>Anopheles albimanus</em> mosquito, which is an important vector for malaria transmission in Central America.
James Gathany
An Anopheles albimanus mosquito, which is an important vector for malaria transmission in Central America.

It's a question that has surely crossed the minds of many of you: Why is it that mosquitoes tend to prefer certain people?

Scientists think they have an answer — at least to what attracts the African mosquito Anopheles gambiae sensu stricto, which is partly responsible for the transmission of malaria. The researchers, led by Niels Verhulst of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, found that the blood suckers are attracted to certain people because of the kinds of bacteria on their skin.

According to the study, published in the Dec. 28 edition of the journal PLoS ONE, mosquitoes were more attracted to men with a "higher abundance but lower diversity of bacteria on their skin..." The mosquitoes were less attracted to "individuals with more diverse skin microbiota..."

That's the conclusion. The scientists got there by exposing the mosquitoes to the body odor of 48 men. Body odor is affected by the kind of bacteria on your skin.

MSNBC explains:

"Verhulst and colleagues collected volatiles — the easily evaporated chemicals responsible for odor — from the left feet of 48 men. They then gave the mosquitoes a choice between each sample and a standard ammonia concentration. (The odor of ammonia is known to attract mosquitos.) They also sequenced DNA from the skin of the left foot; this gave them information on what, and how much of it, was living on the men's feet.

"Of the 48 men who volunteered for the study, the researchers classified nine as 'highly attractive', while seven were considered 'poorly attractive.'"

The scientists say the findings could help the "development of personalized methods for malaria prevention."

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Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.