Fighting malaria, one banana-sniffing fruit fly at a time

I’m currently at the 2012 Drosophila Meeting in Chicago, which just got off to a wonderful start. My favourite part of the evening was Stephanie Turner Chen’s presentation on her fantastic PhD thesis work, for which she received the Larry Sandler award.

She started off studying Drosophila olfactory neurons – specifically, how flies can smell carbon dioxide (they hate it and run away from it). Some genetics identified a specific receptor in the neurons responsible. She then asked how it was that fruit flies hate carbon dioxide, but love fermented fruit, which gives off plenty of it. It turned out that there are other compounds which can counteract the carbon dioxide neuron response.

The link to malaria is that mosquitoes, unlike fruit flies, love carbon dioxide, and use the smell to locate humans. But, like fruit flies, they use the same receptor to detect the carbon dioxide, and they react to the same compounds that disrupt the detection mechanism. So, by disrupting the mosquito ability to smell carbon dioxide, we can make their human targets invisible, offering a potential new, cost effective mosquito repellent which could help in the fight against malaria.

I love this project for a number of reasons. It’s a whirlwind of awesome science, from genetics, to electrophysiology for looking at activation of neurons, to insect behavioural studies and even field testing of the potential new mosquito repellents. It’s wonderfully question driven – the diverse array of techniques is applied to answer a logical sequence of questions about the observed phenomena. And finally, it’s a wonderful showcase of how abstract basic science can have a real world impact.

Well done Stephanie, the award is well deserved!

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