Mosquitoes are responsible for roughly 2.7 million deaths each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). More than being a nuisance, the trillions of mosquitoes on Earth can transmit deadly diseases throughout the global population. Consequently, researchers like Dr. Jonathan Bohbot are ‘abuzz’ with new repellant solutions to keep our surroundings mosquito-free.
Dr. Bohbot, an entomologist and assistant professor at The Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pioneered the discovery of a molecule that may eventually serve as a potential mosquito repellent. His discovery contributes to the growing mosquito repellent market, valued in 2020 at over $4 billion. In such a growing field – where global warming will continue to drive the population of mosquitoes upwards – safe mosquito repellent solutions are needed more than ever.
Bohbot and his team have dedicated their research to investigating mosquitoes’ senses of smell – a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to determining which molecules deter and attract these insects.
“It is a very competitive field. And we are all trying to find chemicals that manipulate the behavior of these insects,” Bohbot tells NoCamels.
It was previously discovered that carbon dioxide – a compound humans continuously exhale – and the alcohol of mushrooms, serve as mosquito attractants, he explains. Yet, the complete neuronal anatomy of mosquitoes’ small noses was not entirely known – that is, until Bohbot and his team introduced a cannabis-derived molecule to the mosquito. Cannabis, a “plant species that produces the widest variety of volatile compounds”, has a fragrant smell that proved beneficial to Bohbot and his team.
“With this very simple process, we identified the missing piece of the puzzle that would allow us to understand the function of the small nose, considering that it already detects carbon dioxide, the mushroom alcohol, and, now, this compound that we have discovered. So we’ve done a lot of work in terms of molecule characterization and physiology, and are moving on to the behavior to understand the meaning of this compound,” Bohbot says.
Recently, cannabis has been the focus of scientific innovators both in and out of the insect field. With so many advancements in the nuances of cannabis – its smells, chemical functions, and composition – it is a scientific target for many.
“It is a treasure trove of compounds that insects can interact with,” he continues.
Bohbot’s innovation has been years in the making. At a young age, he was interested in social insects and chemical communication via smell. Now, though, his work holds much more significance with the modern threat of mosquitoes.
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“They affect the lives of many people. They transmit diseases such as malaria (which most of us are familiar with), yellow fever, dengue, and other things from nature,” he explains. “Some people have argued that they are the most dangerous animals on the planet because of that. So, if we can limit interactions between mosquitoes and humans, we can limit the transmission of pathogens to humans.”
The mosquito problem has become a global phenomenon, he adds.
“You have species like the tiger mosquito. It came initially from Southeast Asia and now it’s all over the place. It’s in Europe. It’s in Israel. It’s in the United States. It has invaded – it is an invasive species as we say – and so this is also a vector for transmitting diseases.”
The current “gold standard of insect repellents” is DEET, a widely-used yet poorly-perceived insect repellent. With skin consequences, damaging effects on plastic, and a short protection range, though, DEET is not the end-all-be-all solution, Bohbot explains. Scientists around the globe are investing in entomology research to find new solutions.
“The holy grail of mosquito repellents will be to find a natural compound that could repel mosquitoes at a longer range, so they wouldn’t come to you necessarily very close. They would run away, from further back. We could use this to protect a whole area – a room or a balcony – so you can enjoy your dinner outside,” Bohbot says.
Looking to the future, Bohbot and his team hope to continue to research the behavioral patterns of the mosquito. Using innovative and “cutting-edge” technologies – including a machine in his lab that tracks mosquito flight patterns – Bohbot aims to develop a product that will either attract or repel mosquitoes. Ultimately, he hopes to continue innovating to keep people safe.
“[We] want to develop a new generation of molecules that are more accepted by the public and that are also more efficient in terms of range of action,” Bohbot says.