Photograph courtesy James Gathany, CDC
Published May 10, 2010
Bring on the bug zappers.
Mosquitoes that have an insensitivity to the popular bug repellent DEET can pass that genetic trait on to their offspring, new research shows.
DEET, a chemical found in most bug sprays, repels mosquitoes by mimicking plant chemicals.
When female mosquitoes go out looking for blood—which they need to fertilize their eggs—they're not interested in plants. So a DEET-coated human doesn't smell like a tasty snack, according to study co-author James Logan, a chemical ecologist at the U.K. agricultural-research center Rothamsted Research.
But in recent tests, researchers identified some DEET-insensitive Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—a species that carries the diseases dengue and yellow fever—by observing which insects bit DEET-treated human arms. The team then discovered that a gene alteration stopped a sensory cell on the bugs' antennae from detecting the chemical. (Read about DEET-free insect repellents in the Green Guide.)
And when the team bred these mutated females with males of unknown sensitivity, the proportion of DEET-oblivious mosquitoes rose from 13 to 50 percent in one generation, the team reported May 3 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Little Risk of Superbugs
But the risk of a race of invincible superbugs isn't that great, Logan cautioned.
That's because there will still be enough regular mosquitoes to crossbreed with those that can't sense DEET.
"You'd have to have every single person [in the world] using DEET all the time" for the resistant bugs to spread, he added.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Latest News Video
Mazes are a powerful tool for neuroscientists trying to figure out the brain and help us learn to grapple with the unexpected.