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Mapped fly brain helps to fight mosquitoes

Researchers now know how flies and other insects feel changes in temperature as well as humidity. The findings let researchers understand what insects react to and how they react. The results can help to fight insects like mosquitoes.
A fruit fly, Drosophila.
A fruit fly, Drosophila. Photo: Marcus Stensmyr

Earlier, researchers have learnt about the neurons that insects use to detect reduced humidity. Now they have discovered the neurons that detect increased humidity. Research can now also describe how an insect use the brain to combine information about temperature and humidity and how they react to that information.

”You can describe it as a sixth sense, or a map in the brain that help insects interpret both temperature and humidity. When it gets really warm and dry they try to move elsewhere. High temperature and drought is more dangerous to insects than lower temperatures and moisture,” says Marcus Stensmyr, assistant professor at the Department of Biology at Lund University.

He and his colleague Anders Enjin, both of them biologists at the Faculty of Science in Lund, have used fruit flies to study how the neurons work. They have worked together with a group from Northwestern University in the US. They have mapped the neurons on the flies’ antenna and studied how the information about temperature and humidity is transmitted to the brain where it is processed.

By using fluorescent molecules and microscope the researchers could see which neurons in the fruit fly’s brain that react to heat, cold, humidity and drought. When they disabled the neurons that reacted to drought the researchers discovered that the flies lost their ability to realize the threat of combined drought and high temperature. The result was that fruit flies no longer could notice the difference between dry and humid heat.

The fruit fly is often used as a model organism in biological research. According to the researchers the results can be applied to other insects as well, for example mosquitoes.

”If we can disable certain neurons in their brains it will open new doors to insecticidal. If the fight against mosquitoes is more effective it will be possible to fight insect-borne diseases in a whole other way than today,” says Marcus Stensmyr.

The results were recently pulished online in Current Biology.

Jan Olsson

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