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Will Smelling Like A Chicken Really Prevent Mosquito Bites?

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Almost no one wants to be bitten by a mosquito. The itching is bad enough but a number of infections may come with that unfortunate bite. Infections such as malaria, West Nile Virus, Dengue, and now Zika can turn that annoyance into a potentially life-threatening condition.

While Canadians may not have as much to worry about as other nations, people still have interesting means to prevent a bite. Long clothing is an obvious choice as is the use of mosquito repellents such as DEET. But some people turn to more inventive methods such as the use of mosquito nets and the extracts from certain plants to veer away insects.

Now there may be another mosquito-preventing option in the works based on a recent study from an Ethiopian group of researchers. Their focus relies less on synthetic insecticides or physical barriers. Instead, they appear to have found a means to keep those mozzies away using a rather odd source: chickens.

The study was supposed to focus on the food preferences of a particular type of mosquito. It's officially known as Anopheles arabiensis and is widespread in Africa. It's known as one of the most important carriers of malaria and its control is vital to public health in these areas. For the authors, understanding which animals were more likely to be seen as food could help in developing control strategies.

The team went to three villages in Ethiopia to collect mosquitoes. They focused on areas rich in certain types of animals such as humans, cattle, goats, sheep, and chickens. When the collection was over, all of the areas contained mosquitoes -- they were everywhere. But when the actual type of blood was examined, there was one particular species missing. Chickens, it turned out, were not considered to be a source of food.

The strange mix of mosquito presence and yet no feeding suggested the insects were avoiding the chickens. For the authors, this meant something was acting as a repellent. However, as to what exactly was behind this protection was a mystery. The most likely option had to be odour yet until this study, there had been no such evaluation.

The group had to figure out how to bring the odour to the lab without actually bringing the animal. They eventually decided on taking hair, wool, or feathers from the animals and sealing them up in a bag. Once they were in the lab, the chemicals causing the smells were isolated and then analyzed.

As expected, chickens had a few unique molecules associated with their feathers. They included names such as hexadecane, which smells a little like gasoline; isobutyl butanoate, which has a fruity aroma; trans-limolene oxide, which has a minty-citrus scent, naphthalene, which is used in mothballs, β-myrcene, which gives off a clove-like odour, and a few unknowns.

With the chemical constituents known, the next step was to test them in the presence of mosquitoes. They did this by baiting traps with synthetic versions of the compounds identified. As a control, they used the natural source of the chemicals -- a chicken -- to see if any of the compounds could compare to the real thing.

When the results came back, the trap with the chicken, despite its obvious ability to repel, did not have the fewest number of mosquitoes. That belonged to the traps containing the synthetic limolene oxide and the β-myrcene. This suggested individual chemicals -- not the chickens -- were the reasons behind the repulsion.

Chemically speaking, the findings make sense. Both limolene oxide and β-myrcene are already known as insect repellents yet they hadn't been tested against mosquitoes. Perhaps even more importantly, these two chemicals have a rather long range in terms of odour distribution. They could potentially keep mosquitoes far enough away to prevent any chance of being trapped.

For the authors, the results point to the potential for the development of novel mosquito repelling agents. Although these chemicals are naturally made, they could be developed synthetically for use in a variety of products including one for people. While this may still be years away, the mere discovery of a new direction is significant in light of the fact many mosquito species are growing resistant to insecticides.

In the meantime, the best options to keep free of bites continue to be long clothes and insect repellent.

As for housing chickens, it's best to avoid this practice. The upkeep for these animals is rather intense and should be limited to those who are prepared to keep and care for them.

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