Biting insects such as mosquitoes are among the greatest public health scourges on our planet. These small insects transmit deadly diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, and West Nile encephalitis. They are responsible for over 1 million deaths worldwide annually, mostly from malaria. The mosquito relies primarily on its sense of smell to find humans by cuing in on the characteristic scent of human sweat and the carbon dioxide present in breath. The mosquito is potently attracted to the scent of humans; this behavior is key to its transmission of malaria and other infectious diseases to humans through blood feeding.
Dr. Vosshall’s goal is to develop the next generation of safe and highly effective insect repellents, which may be a new weapon in the fight against infectious diseases transmitted by blood-feeding mosquitoes. By understanding the mechanism by which mosquitoes sniff out our body odor, we can begin screening many hundreds of thousands of chemicals, some of which may inhibit these insect proteins. Dr. Vosshall discusses the public health consequences of mosquitoes, old-fashioned approaches to ward off biting insects, and how modern molecular biology and chemical biology may offer some potent weapons to control mosquito behavior and thereby reduce the spread of infectious diseases.