Friday, October 4, 2013


With this being the fourth and final year of my degree (who woulda thunk it?), I'm taking a science reporting class that's taught by the Globe and Mail's science correspondent, Ivan Semeniuk.

For our first assignment, we were to write a story about a new discovery in the world of science.

I did mine on the recent discovery of a new chemical compound that supposedly acts as an invisibility cloak for us against mosquitoes. What's even cooler is that one of the chemicals in that compound is found in human skin. Read my story (below) to find out more!

Side note - You know, reporting on science is fun. From Mars to mosquitoes, there are so many cool things out there to talk about and no shortage of fascinating people to talk to. In fact, next week I'm meeting up with a particle physicist right here at Carleton to discuss the work she's doing with experimental particle colliders.

By Mohamed Suleman

Imagine this: a chemical that’s found right in your skin that when mixed with a bunch of other chemicals, renders you practically invisible to mosquitoes and other blood-sucking critters.

That’s what a group of researchers from the United StatesDepartment of Agriculture (USDA) presented at the American Chemical Society conference in Indianapolis last week.

The chemical is part of a newly discovered compound which redefines the function of the traditional mosquito repellent.

“The compound that was discovered was not so much a repellent as it was an ‘attraction inhibitor’ because they caused the mosquitoes to behave in a different manner,” said Dr. Natasha Agramonte, a co-author of the study.

And boy did they behave in a different manner.

The intimidatingly named chemical 1-methylpiperazine acts differently from other chemical repellents like DEET because instead of deterring a mosquito from a particular smell, it quite simply doesn’t let the mosquito smell its dinner to start with.

“A repellent would normally cause the mosquitoes to move away from the source of the repellent chemical, as DEET does when you apply it to your skin, said Dr. Agramonte.

“1-methylpiperazine appears to interfere with the mosquitoes’ ability to smell which causes them to have difficulty locating humans to feed on.”

The discovery was led by long time research chemist at the USDA’s Mosquito and Fly Research Unit, Dr. Ulrich Bernier. In order to improve a mix of three chemicals he had previously found that were successful in attracting mosquitoes, Dr. Bernier was initially on the lookout for more chemicals that would attract mosquitos.

Instead, he stumbled across something very different.

Rather than making the chemical blend more attractive to mosquitoes, when 1 –methylpiperazine (which is found in small trace amounts on human skin) was added to the other chemicals it made the mosquitoes unresponsive to attractants or to human skin.

Commenting on the discovery, Neal Dawson, a comparative biochemist at Carleton University, said that while the compound ‘definitely has promise,’ the team still has a long way to go and need to consider some of the possible roadblocks of their new discovery.

“The potential pitfalls are the ability to mass produce it, and the potential side effects this would have with sensitive skin and reactivity with other drugs,” Dawson said.

“There is also the issue with reactivity to address and how it would interact with skin products like lotions, creams and cleansers.”

But Dr. Agramonte said that her team were still many tests and lots of time away from introducing their compound to the market.

“Even though the chemical is found in small amounts on human skin, toxicology tests will also eventually be done to insure the safety of the chemical on human skin in higher concentrations and to make sure it is safe to inhale,” Dr, Agramonte said.

“At this stage I can safely say it’s an interesting discovery,” said Dr. John Arnason, a chemical ecology professor and specialist at the University of Ottawa.

“But people have been doing this kind of stuff for some time now and before getting too excited about it, I would wait and see how well it works outside of the lab and out in the field.”

He also said that another challenge that Dr. Bernier and his team faces is the fact that insect repellents are usually subject to microscopic and often lengthy approval processes before they are put on the market.

The team’s next step, as Dr. Arnason suggested, is to test the compound in a larger field setting and see how well it is able to hide humans from mosquitoes outdoors.

Whether the discovery of this fascinating new compound will spell the end of DEET or not, the thought of a mosquito ‘invisibility cloak’ sure makes those long summer days all that more welcoming. 

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