Your skin is teeming with bacteria. There are billions of them, living on the dry parched landscapes of your forearms, and the wet, humid forests of your nose. On your feet alone, every square centimetre has around half a million bacteria. These microbes are more than just passengers, hitching a ride on your bodies. They also affect how you smell.
Skin bacteria are our own natural perfumers. They convert chemicals on our skin into those that can easily rise into the air, and different species produce different scents. Without these microbes, we wouldn’t be able to smell each other’s sweat at all. But we’re not the only ones who can sniff these bacterial chemicals. Mosquitoes can too. Niels Verhulst from Wageningen University and Research Centre has just found that the bacteria on our skin can affect our odds of being bitten by a malarial mosquito.
Several million years ago, Plasmodium falciparum – the parasite that causes most cases of human malaria – jumped into humans from other apes. We’ve known as much for decades but for all this time, we’ve pinned the blame on the wrong species. A new study reveals that malaria is not, as previously thought, a disease that came from chimpanzees; instead it’s an unwanted gift from gorillas.
We’ve all heard about “beer goggles”, the mythical, invisible eyewear that makes everyone else seem incredibly attractive after a few pints too many. If only beer had the reverse effect, making the drinker seem irresistibly attractive. Well, the good news is that beer does actually do this. The bad news is that the ones who are attracted are malarial mosquitoes.
Anopheles gambiae (the mosquito that transmits malaria) tracks its victims by their smells. By wafting the aromas of humans over thousands of mosquitoes, Thierry Lefevre found that they find the body odour of beer drinkers to be quite tantalising. The smell of tee-total water drinkers just can’t compare. The somewhat quirky conclusion from the study, albeit one with public health implications, is that drinking beer could increase the risk of contracting malaria.
Lefevre recruited 43 men from Burkina Faso and sent them individually into one of two sealed, outdoors tents. One tent was kept unoccupied. In the second, the volunteer had to drink either a litre of water (just shy of two pints) or a litre of dolo (a local 3% beer and the country’s most popular alcoholic drink). A fan pumped air from the tents, body odour and all, into the two forks of a Y-shaped apparatus. Both branches met in a third arm, which ended in a cup full of mosquitoes. The insects had to decide which branch of the Y to fly down and two pieces of gauze trapped them in their chosen path (and saved the volunteers from an infectious bite).
Lefevre showed that the smell of a beer drinker, 15 minutes after chugging his litre, increased the proportion of mosquitoes inclined to fly into the tubes, and the proportion (65%) who headed down the beer-scented fork. The smell of water-drinkers had no effect, nor did the smell of the occupied tent before its inhabitant started drinking.
This is an updated version of the first post I wrote this year. The scientists in question were looking at ways of recruiting bacteria in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases, such as dengue fever. They’ve just published new results that expand on their earlier experiments.
Mosquitoes are incredibly successful parasites and cause millions of human deaths every year through the infections they spread. But they are no match for the most successful parasite of all – a bacterium called Wolbachia. It infects around 60% of the world’s insect species and it could be our newest recruit in the fight against malaria, dengue fever and other mosquito-borne infections.
Wolbachia doesn’t usually infect mosquitoes but Scott O’Neill from the University of Queensland is leading a team of researchers who are trying to enlist it. Earlier this year, they published the story of their first success. They had developed a strain that not only infects mozzies, but halves the lifespans of infected females. Now, as the year comes to an end, they’re back with another piece of good news – their life-shortening bacteria also guard the mosquitoes from other infections.
It protects them against a species of Plasmodium, related to the parasite that causes malaria in humans, as well as the viruses responsible for dengue fever and Chikungunya. Infected insects are less likely to carry parasites that cause human disease, and those that do won’t live long enough to spread them. It’s a significant double-whammy that could have a lot of potential in controlling mosquito-borne diseases.
Around 2600 years ago in Egypt, a woman called Irtyersenu died. She was mummified and buried at the necropolis at Thebes, where she remained for over two millennia before being unearthed in 1819. Her well-preserved body was brought to the British Museum where it was examined by the physician and obstetrician Augustus Bozzi Granville. It was the first ever medical autopsy of an Egyptian mummy and Granville presented his results to the Royal Society in 1825. His conclusion: Ityersenu died of ovarian cancer.
The mummification techniques of ancient Egypt were so good that Irtyersenu’s corpse still retained many soft tissues, and most of her organs intact. In particular, an unusual mass around her right ovary caught Granville’s attention. He interpreted it as a cancer and the cause of the lady’s death. But according to later studies, the tumour was a benign one, far from the fatal affliction that Granville envisaged.
Some scientists have since blamed malaria for Irtyersenu’s death but Helen Donoghue from University College London believes she has uncovered the true culprit – tuberculosis.
It’s clear that tuberculosis was a big killer of ancient Egyptians. Scientists have found DNA from Mycoplasma tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes the disease, in several mummies from both genders and all social circles. Donoghue managed to do the same for samples of Ityersenu’s lung, gall bladder and other tissues.
Swine flu has made the world all too aware of the possibility of diseases making the leap from animal hosts to human ones. Now, we know that another disease made a similar transition from chimpanzees to humans, several thousand years ago. This particular infection is caused by a parasite, and a very familiar and dangerous one – Plasmodium falciparum, the agent responsible for malaria.
Transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes, P.falciparum infects over 500 million people every year. Its closest relative is a related parasite, Plasmodium reichenowi, which infects chimpanzees. Leading an international research team, Stephen Rich from the University of Massachussetts has discovered that P.reichenowi is no mere relative – it’s actually P.falciparum‘s ancestor.
Rich compared the genes of the two species to build a Plasmodium family tree, which showed that all of the 133 known strains of P.falciparum, from all parts of the world, are united one a single branch on the P.reichenowi lineage. The stem of that branch represents a single event where P.reichenowi crossed the species barrier from chimps to humans.
The new study was possible because of eight newly collected samples of P.reichenowi from wild and captive chimps. Until now, only a single sample of this species had ever been isolated. Armed with fresh samples, the team focused their attention on three genes – cytB, clpC and 18s rRNA. They found that those of P.reichenowi are very varied, much more so than its genetically uniform cousin P.falciparum (even though we have over 16 times as many samples of the latter). Chances are that any two samples of P.reichenowi are more genetically distinct that either one is to P.falcarium.