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It's not your imagination. Research says some people are more attractive to mosquitos

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now a story about a bunch of real bloodsuckers - not vampires, politicians or even journalists - mosquitoes. Some mosquitoes seem especially drawn to certain people. They just fly away from others. Why is that? Leslie Vosshall and her team of researchers at the Rockefeller University decided to find out. She's the head of the laboratory of neurogenetics and behavior there. Dr. Vosshall, thanks so much for being with us.

LESLIE VOSSHALL: My pleasure. Can't wait to talk about mosquito magnets.

SIMON: Well, are you one? I mean, what gave you a personal interest in this?

VOSSHALL: You know, I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm not that interesting to them. We worked on this because everybody wants to know, and for 15 years, every day, someone asks me, why am I always attacked at every picnic, and why are my children ignored? Why's my husband ignored? And so we decided to really attack it and do the science.

SIMON: What's the short answer?

VOSSHALL: The short answer is high levels of carboxylic acid on your skin. Carboxylic acids are that natural moisturizer that we all have that keeps our skin barrier healthy.

SIMON: So do we make ourselves a magnet when we slather sun cream on or something?

VOSSHALL: None of this makes any difference. The mosquitoes are really cuing into the natural fatty acids on the skin, and you can't strip them off, and you can't cover them up with perfume or anything. So that's why the magnets that we found at the beginning of the study, three years later, were still the peak-performing mosquito magnets.

SIMON: Wow. I guess that's just our lot in life. Help us understand how you conducted the study.

VOSSHALL: So the whole study was done with Aedes aegypti, which is a dangerous mosquito that spreads dengue, yellow fever, Zika, chikungunya. And so they love humans. They specialize on humans. They don't care about animals. And the way we did this is we - it involved pantyhose. So this was a big pantyhose experiment. We had people wear nylon stockings on their arms. We cut those smelly nylons into little pieces and used them as bait and then asked hungry female mosquitoes to choose between nylon No. 1 and nylon No. 2. We did over 2,500 contests in this big tournament to identify the most attractive person of them all.

SIMON: The way you describe it, there is no way out. I mean, if you're just born that way, you're born that way.

VOSSHALL: I don't know if that's comforting news. I think for the people who are magnets, at least you know that you have more carboxylic acids, and that's the reason why.

SIMON: Yeah. Once you know this part of the puzzle, if I might put it this way, maybe people can develop some kind of treatment, something as simple as a repellant or maybe just - I don't know - series of inoculations that people might take.

VOSSHALL: You're on the right track. So I think that that's why the basic science is important, is that until you figure out what it is, you can't figure out how to do the next step. So carboxylic acid levels really mean that you're going to be a magnet, so let's reduce them. Let's - maybe a skin cream that will change the chemistry of your skin, maybe beneficial bacteria that interact with our skin differently to make us less smelly. So there's lots of options, and the first step is the science that gives us the answer.

SIMON: Is smelly a scientific term?

VOSSHALL: I try to make the work accessible, yeah. I could say olfactory function, but let's go with smelly.

SIMON: No, I absolutely agree.

Leslie Vosshall, professor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Rockefeller University, thanks so much for being with us. Oh, sorry - just a little something on my neck.

VOSSHALL: It's been so great speaking with you. Thank you so much for your interest in our work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.