Mosquitoes are responsible for nearly 2.7 million deaths each year, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). More than a nuisance, the billions of mosquitoes on Earth can transmit deadly diseases through the world’s population. Thus, researchers like Dr. Jonathan Pohbot are “blooming” with new repellent solutions to keep our surroundings mosquito-free.
Dr. Bohbot, an entomologist and associate professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pioneered the discovery of a molecule that may eventually act as a potential mosquito repellent. His discovery contributes to the growth of the mosquito repellent market, which in 2020 amounted to more than 4 billion dollars. In such a growing field – where global warming will continue to drive mosquito numbers up – safe mosquito repellent solutions are needed more than ever.
Bohbot and his team have dedicated their research to examining mosquitoes’ sense of smell – a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to identifying molecules that 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 told NoCamels.
It was previously discovered that carbon dioxide – a compound that humans exhale constantly – and mushroom alcohol, act as attractants for mosquitoes, he explained. However, the complete neuroanatomy of the small noses of mosquitoes was not completely known—that is, until Bohbot and his team introduced a cannabis-derived molecule to mosquitoes. Cannabis, “a type of plant that produces the widest variety of volatile compounds,” has a fragrant aroma that has proven beneficial to Bohbot and his team.
“Through this very simple process, we have identified the missing piece of the puzzle that allows us to understand the function of the little nose, considering that it is already detecting carbon dioxide, mushroom alcohol, and now, this compound that we discovered. So we did a lot of work in terms of characterizing Molecules and physiology, and we turn to behavior to understand the meaning of this compound,” Bohbot says.
Recently, cannabis has been the focus of scientific innovators both inside and outside the field of insects. With the many advances in the nuances of cannabis – its aromas, chemical functions, and composition – it has become a scientific target for many.
“It’s a treasure trove of compounds that insects can interact with,” he continues.
It’s been years since Bohbot was invented. At a young age, he was interested in social insects and chemical communication by smell. Now, though, his work holds much more importance with the modern threat of mosquitoes.
It affects the lives of many people. They transmit diseases like malaria (which most of us are familiar with), yellow fever, dengue and other things from nature.” 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 reduce transmission of pathogens diseases to humans.
He adds that the mosquito problem has become a global phenomenon.
“You have a species like the tiger mosquito. It first came from Southeast Asia and now it’s everywhere. It’s in Europe. It’s in Israel. It’s in the United States. It’s invaded – it’s an alien species, we say – so it’s also a vector for disease.” .
The current “gold standard for insect repellents” is DEET, a widely used but poorly perceived insect repellent. Bohbot explains that with skin consequences, harmful effects on plastic, and short range of protection, DEET is not the ultimate answer. Scientists around the world are investing in entomology research to find new solutions.
“The holy grail of mosquito repellents is to find a natural compound that can repel mosquitoes at a longer range, so they won’t necessarily get very close to you. They would escape from farther away. We can use this to protect an entire area – a room or a balcony – so you can enjoy dinner in the outside,” Bohbot says.
Looking to the future, Bohbot and his team hope to continue researching the behavioral patterns of mosquitoes. Using innovative, “cutting-edge” technologies — including a machine in his lab that tracks mosquitoes’ flight patterns — Bohbot aims to develop a product that either attracts or repels mosquitoes. Ultimately, he hopes to continue innovating to keep people safe.
“[We] It wants to develop a new generation of molecules that are more acceptable to the public and are also more efficient in terms of scope of work,” says Bohbot.