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Why Do Fleas, Ticks, and Mosquitoes Show Individual Preferences?

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Why do fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes show individual preference?

Tirumalai Kamala:

Biting insects (bugs, fleas, flies, mites, mosquitoes, ticks) locate and bite their blood host targets from the chemical cues they release. Such cues are volatile organic compound (VOC) produced by their skin microbes after they metabolize human skin gland secretions, i.e., an individual's VOC profile is largely the product of their skin flora. Thus, biting preference is the outcome of how each biting insect's odorant receptors detect the VOCs unique to the individual it bites.

Skin glands include apocrine and eccrine sweat glands, and sebaceous glands (see below from 1).

Skin glands are differentially distributed across the body and human skin microbe abundance matches theirs (see below from 1).

The human odor profile consists of >400 compounds (2). Research on which ones are most important in attracting biting insects is very much in its infancy.

One small study (n = 48 adult male volunteers) on the African malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae sensu stricto found that individuals the mosquitoes found highly attractive had different skin bacteria compared to individuals they found poorly attractive, specifically greater abundance but lower diversity of skin-associated bacteria (see below from 3).

In another small study (n = 48 adult male volunteers) Anopheles gambiae sensu stricto found individuals carrying the human leukocyte antigen gene Cw*07 more attractive (4). Since different individuals have different HLA haplotypes,

  • Each individual's unique HLA system generates different peptides, i.e., source material their skin-associated microbes metabolize and convert to VOCs is unique.
  • Each individual's unique HLA is involved in the immunological processes that culminate in their unique microbial profile since immune responses select which microbes to keep or reject.

Individual genetics also influence skin temperature and humidity profiles, and metabolic rate, which are other factors that influence individuals' differential attractiveness to biting insects. Metabolic rate influences local carbon dioxide levels, which along with ammonia and lactic acid and other aliphatic carboxylic acids influence landing rates of biting insects like mosquitoes (5).

Each human thus has a largely individual VOC profile, product of their unique genetics and unique skin microbial profile. In turn, biting insects each have their specific odorant receptors. Combinations of these two parameters likely make some humans more attractive to each such biting insect compared to others. Research on this topic is still nascent and there's more data for disease-carrying mosquitoes than for other biting insects.

Since human lifestyle, especially diet, can actively sculpt human microbiota profiles, it's likely future research will reveal how different diets could influence an individual's VOC profile and in turn increase or decrease a biting insects's preference for a particular individual.

Similar processes likely explain the differences between dogs who get ticks versus those who don't. However, in the case of ticks that's only the first step since immune status probably determines whether or not they successfully establish an infection, healthier dogs fending off ticks that could stably colonize less healthy ones.

Bibliography

1. Verhulst, Niels O., et al. "Chemical ecology of interactions between human skin microbiota and mosquitoes." FEMS microbiology ecology 74.1 (2010): 1-9.

2. Verhulst, Niels O., and Willem Takken. "Skin Microbiota and Attractiveness to Mosquitoes." Encyclopedia of Metagenomics. Springer US, 2015. 591-595.

3. Verhulst, Niels O., et al. "Composition of human skin microbiota affects attractiveness to malaria mosquitoes." PloS one 6.12 (2011): e28991.

4. Verhulst, Niels O., et al. "Relation between HLA genes, human skin volatiles and attractiveness of humans to malaria mosquitoes." Infection, Genetics and Evolution 18 (2013): 87-93.

5. Smallegange, Renate C., Niels O. Verhulst, and Willem Takken. "Sweaty skin: an invitation to bite?." Trends in parasitology 27.4 (2011): 143-148.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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