Why do mosquitoes bite some people more than others?
Every summer, they come. They sneak through the windows and ravage your ankles; they find the one spot on your left shoulder that didn’t get drenched in a layer of DEET (God bless you, Deep Woods Off!) and gnaw, chomp, and suck away.
From May to September, many of us – covered in scars and bloody scabs, the remnants of these bites now gone bad – live side-by-side with people who, despite living in the same house and even sleeping in the same bed, are seemingly less vulnerable to the vicious six-legged predators.
It turns out, a mosquito’s snacking preference for one person over another is not just a curious annoyance, it’s also a medical concern: Since malaria and other diseases are transmitted by bites, people who get bitten a lot are more likely to become ill. Because of this, researchers are working to find the mechanisms in mosquitoes that cause them to sniff out you, and not your neighbor.
Scientists have identified several proteins found in mosquitoes’ antennae and heads that latch on to chemical markers, or odorants, emitted from our skin. These markers are produced by the natural processes of our bodies and, like neon signs, they let the mosquitoes’ smell center know you’re around (though the process that then guides them to you is not well understood).
Flies and mosquitoes share a number of the same genes that dictate production of these odorant-binding proteins, which have specific sites that will catch or bind with certain chemicals in the air. Some scientists suggest that certain characteristics attract mosquitoes, thereby leading us to have more bites than others. Some of the top candidates: the amount of carbon dioxide in the breath, pregnancy, body temperature, alcohol and odorant markers based on blood type.