Researchers at Vanderbilt looking for better ways to control the spread of malaria have stumbled across an insect repellent that is thousands of times stronger than DEET. But it doesn’t just work to confuse malaria-carrying mosquitoes. This new compound works against all insects, including flies, ants, and moths.
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The compound known as VUAA1 was borne of recent discoveries about the fundamental way that mosquitoes smell. Just a few years ago, it was thought that the basic sniffing mechanism for mosquitoes was very similar to that of mammals--that is, that odorant receptors (ORs) sitting atop nerve cells are tuned to different molecules, and when a receptor comes in contact with its target molecule it notifies the brain via the nerve.
But mosquitoes’ olfactory senses works a bit differently. It turns out their ORs rely on a sort of nerve switchboard, a co-receptor called Orco. When an OR detects an odorant molecule, it activates while the other ORs on a given antenna remain deactivated. The Orco acts as a sort of switch that tells the brain which OR is activated, and thus what molecule is being detected.
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