UW News

June 3, 2024

Video: Before they bite — UW researcher homes in on which scents, colors make us a tempting target for hungry mosquitoes

Summer is just around the corner, and with it, more opportunities to have fun and frolic in the sun. But more time outside means more chances for another common warm-weather annoyance: mosquito bites.

University of Washington researchers are hoping those itchy bumps could soon become a thing of the past.

Man in a lab pointing to a clear canister with mosquitoes in it.

UW professor of biology Jeff Riffell.UW News

Jeffrey Riffell, a UW professor of biology, studies mosquito sensory systems, particularly their sense of smell. He and his team want to understand how mosquitoes find food, whether it be males — who drink nectar — or females, who drink blood when they are trying to produce eggs.

Riffell’s research has shown that hungry female mosquitoes find us by following a trail of scent cues, including chemicals exuded by our skin and sweat, as well as the carbon dioxide gas we exhale with each breath. Mosquitoes also like colors, at least certain ones. His team is investigating how the visual and olfactory senses work together to help a mosquito zero in for the final strike and get her blood meal.

In the United States, climate change is opening new habitats for mosquitos. Washington currently boasts 20 species, including ones that can transmit West Nile virus.

Knowing what attracts mosquitoes — males to flowers, females to people — can help develop better control and containment efforts against these insects, whose bites can also transmit malaria, Zika, dengue, yellow fever and other diseases. Traps that kill or poison mosquitoes, for example, would be more effective if they released a mosquito-attracting scent. Mosquito-borne illnesses kill hundreds of thousands of people each year. Riffell and his team hope their efforts can help take a bite out of those numbers.

For more information, contact Riffell at jriffell@uw.edu.