DEET Works by Masking Body Odors from Bugs

DEET has long been used in protecting people from disease-transmitting insects such as mosquitoes. It was invented by the US Army to protect its soldiers from the said insects in the field. It was later on approved for use to civilians by virtue of its excellent protective qualities against mosquito bites.

Despite its effectiveness in protecting humans from mosquitoes over the years, scientists never really were able to understand how DEET precisely works. It is only recently that researchers at Rockerfeller University were able to show definitively just how DEET works to protect humans against mosquitoes. This widely used insect repellant has been found to act as a chemical cloak that masks human odors that blood-feeding insects depend on to locate victims.

Researchers from the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior in Rockerfeller University, headed by Leslie Vosshall, was able learn of how DEET precisely works by pinpointing its molecular target in insects. It has long been known that mosquitoes are attracted to odors in human sweat and breath which includes lactic acid, carbon dioxide and an alcohol-based compound called 1-octen-3-ol.

Different receptors found in the olfactory systems of insects are able to detect these odors that help them locate their prey. What DEET does is that it simply interferes with the proper function of the different odor receptors to make it more difficult for insects to hunt for their next blood meal.

In order to know about DEET’s effect on these different odorant receptors, the researchers recorded the electrical activity of the cells found in the insect’s olfactory system while exposing them to DEET. They found out that DEET shuts down those receptors that work together with a smell co-receptor known as Or83b, which is present in all insects.

DEET can effectively shut down receptors that detect sweat but are unable to shut down odor receptors that detect carbon dioxide since it doesn’t require the co-receptor Or83b in order to function.


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