DEET is the mother of all mosquito repellants. Its strong stench keeps bugs at bay by affronting their olfactory systems with an intensely offensive odor. But scientists are now running into a problem with DEET’s effectiveness: after three hours the stuff no longer deters buzzing biters.
N,N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, a.k.a. DEET, first emerged as a pesticide for crops, but the U.S. military then developed the chemical for use against biting insects in jungle environments during World War II. Available as a spray or a lotion, DEET is still used today to repel flies, ticks and mosquitoes, and to protect against the diseases these bugs can transmit.
But now, researchers in London have shown that three hours after Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were exposed to DEET, they seemed to become immune to the smell and were no longer repulsed by it. This species, also known as the yellow fever mosquito, is notorious for spreading tropical diseases.
Amidst concerns over the safety of DEET, scientists are on the lookout for a new mosquito repellent. Now they may have found a way to keep biting insects at bay–by blocking their olfactory sense, according to a paper published in Nature.
Mosquitoes sense the presence of humans and animals by detecting the carbon dioxide we exhale with each breath. Researchers have found two compounds, 2,3-butanedione and 1-hexanol, that could keep the biters at bay by blocking the insects’ ability to detect this gas. Using these compounds could be advantageous because the amount of chemical required is relatively small…. Further, the chemicals themselves are not complicated to manufacture and are available through conventional sources. “From both perspectives, this adds up to a viable tool in tackling the problems like that of malaria in Africa” [Scientific American], says study coauthor Anandasankar Ray. Considering the number of diseases spread by insects such as mosquitoes–for example, 250 million people contract malaria each year–there’s a lot more at stake here than a few itchy bug bites.
Powerful bug repellant DEET may do more than keep mosquitoes and other biting critters at bay–it might cause neurological damage in mammals, according to a study published in BioMed Central Biology.
Developed in 1946 by the U.S. Army, DEET has been used by the public for more than half a century to repel bugs like mosquitoes, along with the diseases they can carry. The new study, however, shows that DEET—aka N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide—may be harmful for a variety of animal cells. In lab tests, it caused damage to mosquitoes, cockroach nerves, mouse muscles, and enzymes purified from fruit flies and humans. Applications of DEET slowed or halted the actions of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme hangs out between nerve and muscle cells, breaking down a messenger molecule after it has passed information from one cell to another. If this messenger isn’t properly recycled, it can build up and lead to paralysis [Science News].