How to make humans taste gross to insects

Published Nov 20, 2015, 3:37 am IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 1:26 am IST
Representational image
 Representational image

Fruit flies have 68 receptors on their tongues that allow them to taste sugars and bitter compounds.

Scientists say they’ve identified a set of three receptors (called gustatory receptors or GRs) that allow flies to taste the noxious amino acid L-canavanine, which is found in plants such as clover and alfalfa.

The team also found that GRs in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) that sense nasty compounds are cation channels, which means they have the ability to open and close in response to chemical or mechanical signals. These channels activate neurons by letting in positively charged molecules such as calcium or sodium.

“Our finding that insect GRs collaborate to form a cation channel is of interest because it will set the stage for identifying safe and cheap chemicals that deter insects from biting,” says Craig Montell, a professor the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Fruit flies avoid L-canavanine and now we know the identities of the set of receptors that activate a neural pathway that gives a stop-feeding signal,” he adds.

According to Montell, the team’s discovery may one day be applied to disease-carrying pests such as mosquitoes. They describe the work in Nature Communications.

Because the GRs that provoke insect aversion to L-canavanine are cation channels, scientists will now be able to conduct high-throughput chemical screens to find equally aversive but safer and less expensive chemicals to use to prevent insects from biting people and spreading disease.

Some fruit fly GRs are conserved in insect pests, and in those cases they are likely to have similar functions in disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Once an effective chemical target has been identified, scientists could use it to develop a secondary insect repellent. While it would not prevent insects from landing on skin, chemicals that activate GRs that ordinarily cause a stop-feeding signal could prevent mosquitoes from biting.

“Even if the related GRs in mosquitoes are fairly different, we now have the conceptual framework to demonstrate that their GRs are also ion channels,” Montell says. “We wouldn’t actually use Drosophila GRs to do chemical screens. We would use GRs in insect pests that we want to keep away.”



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