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Sniffing Out Malaria

April 3, 2015

Malaria parasites use insect-attracting odors to lure mosquitoes.



Gates Foundation Tanzania bednets and windowscreens against malaria

Bed nets and window screens keep mosquitoes from transmitting malaria in Tanzania. (Gates Foundation/flickr/Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sniffing out malaria. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Mosquitoes that are able to carry malaria are attracted to people infected with the malaria parasite. How? Washington University School of Medicine microbiologist Audrey Odom reports in the journal mBio that malaria parasites produce terpenes—strong smelling compounds usually produced by plants to communicate with insects.

AUDREY ODOM (Washington University School of Medicine- St. Louis):

So the kinds of things that make lemons smell like lemons or pine trees smell like pine trees. And we wondered if the malaria parasite makes these same kinds of compounds in order to attract mosquitoes.


Odom’s team identified the terpenes the parasites make, and found that mosquitoes respond to them. Their goals are to develop a breathalyzer test to quickly identify people infected with malaria, and come up with ways to short-circuit the parasite to mosquito communication to slow the spread of the disease. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.