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Mosquitoes, stop bites by ‘turning off’ the protein that makes the sting stiffen

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Mosquitoes, stop bites by ‘turning off’ the protein that makes the sting stiffen

Disarming mosquitoes by making them unable to stiffen the proboscis with which they bite. This is the scenario we could arrive at, in the future, thanks to the discovery made by the universities of Milan and Pavia. In the study, published in the journal Current Biology, the researchers announce in fact that they have identified, in the insect’s saliva, a fundamental protein for the sting mechanism. In its absence, the mosquito is unable to stiffen the lip which acts as a “perforator” of the host’s epidermis.

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The saliva of mosquitoes

“The discovery came a little by chance during the characterization of the proteins present in the saliva of Aedes albopictusthat is, the now well-known tiger mosquito, “he recalls Paolo Gabrieliresearcher of the Department of Biosciences of the University of Milan, explaining that the study of this secretion not only gratifies academic curiosity but has strictly health reasons.

The transmission of many diseases

“In the first place, the saliva of mosquitoes has the ability to cause wheals in anyone who is bitten. Furthermore, it is the means of transmission for diseases such as malaria which, worldwide, cause hundreds of miles of death every year.” Despite this, the saliva of mosquitoes is still little known.

“Among the proteins found in saliva we decided to focus on one in particular that seemed particularly interesting from a biochemical point of view. We knew nothing about it, even its name only reflected its atomic mass and nothing else: 34 kDa” goes on Federico Forneris, professor of molecular biology at the University of Pavia and head of the Armenise-Harvard structural biology laboratory. Subsequent analyzes allowed to characterize the structure and understand the function, allowing the anonymous 34 kDa protein to earn its own name.

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“We called this LIPS protein, which stands for labrum-interacting protein of the saliva. It leads to the modification of the tip of the lip, which is one of the parts that make up the mosquito’s proboscis, allowing it to stiffen and cross the epidermis,” he summarizes. Gabrieli.

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Disarm the mosquitoes

End of the story? Not even by dream because the (re) discovery of LIPS set the stage for a further investigation: identifying the responsible receptor. “Its detection is essential for the development of effective strategies to interfere with this mechanism and thus reduce or prevent mosquitoes from biting us. We have demonstrated the functioning of this mechanism by deactivating the gene that produces LIPS in some mosquitoes, obtaining insects that are no longer able to sting man “adds Forneris.

Under normal conditions, a tiger mosquito takes less than a minute to find the most suitable spot for its bite and make its blood meal. “In the absence of LIPS, the time increases considerably without, moreover, certainty of success: in many cases the mosquito ended up giving up and left without having a point” adds Forneris.

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The discovery of this Achilles heel could lead us, in a not too distant future, to develop substances to be used as future deterrents against mosquitoes. “Considering the effects of the diseases carried by these insects on world health, the interest in the discovery is lively: we have already entered into partnerships for the development of substances that interfere with the mechanism promoted by LIPS. In addition, we have received funding from NATO. through the Science for Peace and Security program, “Forneris admits.

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Check for mosquitoes

A substance capable of acting selectively, sparing other species of insects, would constitute an extra arrow in the quiver available to humanity in the control of mosquito populations. “It is utopian to think that a single technology can definitively solve the problem since there are many factors to be taken into consideration: the local context, the type of protection, the genetics of the populations, the balance between costs and benefits and others. , the combination of different approaches can bear fruit and the one we have taken is a completely new path “continues Gabrieli.

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The mechanism promoted by the LIPS protein is not exclusive to the tiger mosquito but has also been confirmed by researchers in its closest species, such as the common mosquito (Culex pipiens) and that of yellow fever (A. aegypti). Unfortunately, it is not present in the one that transmits malaria (Anopheles sp.) For which specific studies will be carried out.

“The game has just begun but the mere fact of being in a position to think about possible applications is a great satisfaction for us, as it demonstrates, once again, the importance of basic research” smiles Gabrieli.

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