Watch out for trick-or-skeeters this Halloween.
US researchers might have discovered the real reason why mosquitoes crave our blood so much — because it tastes like candy to them.
“We think the taste of blood in mosquitoes is a totally unique experience,” said Leslie B. Vosshall, Ph.D., at New York’s Rockefeller University. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator spearheaded the research published Monday in the journal “Neuron.”
The bloody study determined that we taste “salty and sweet” a la salted caramel to the epicurean parasites, who are able to detect a combination of at least four different substances in blood, per the research. Think how a human tongue can differentiate between salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami flavors.
Omnivorous female mosquitoes use their specialized taste buds to distinguish between nectar they consume for energy and the blood they drink before laying eggs. They even have separate mouthparts for each occasion — a “sweet tooth” for sugar and a syringe-like stylet that penetrates skin and extracts plasma, according to the new study.
To test the bloodsuckers’ taste buds, researchers outfitted genetically modified mosquitoes with a fluorescent tag that lit up when a neuron corresponding to a specific flavor was activated. They then fed them both bona fide blood and a mix of glucose, salt, sodium bicarbonate (found in both blood and baking soda), and ATP, an energy-boosting compound.
“ATP is this special mystery stuff that tastes like nothing to humans, but it’s got to be incredibly exciting and rewarding for the mosquito,” according to Vosshall, who has tried it herself.
The scientists discovered that around half the cells responded to blood — both the real and imitation — while the other half didn’t react to anything, the Daily Mail reported. They deduced that the bugs are so adept at identifying blood that they distinguish it from nectar “at the very first level of sensory detection,” according to Neuron.
And while both humans and mosquitos can reportedly sense both the salty and sweet flavors in blood, Vosshall speculates that “the whole experience is definitely different” for a mosquito. She analogizes the insects’ blood-seeking skills to “the ability of honeybees to see ultraviolet and bats to hear ultrasonic sounds.”
Despite their complex palate, mosquitoes aren’t “picky” when it comes to choosing human prey, according to Rockefeller’s Veronica Jové, who led the unorthodox taste test in Vosshall’s laboratory. “We’re all tasty enough for a mosquito,” she said.
Scientists hope that understanding mosquitoes’ taste buds will help them create medications that stop them from biting people and transmitting disease. Vosshall has even proposed employing a drug that will make us less delicious to the bugs.
“If mosquitoes weren’t able to detect the taste of blood, in theory they couldn’t transmit disease,” said Jové.