Why do mosquitoes prefer us over other animals? In episode 94, we talk with Zhilei Zhao and Lindy McBride from Princeton about their research into how mosquitoes that can carry dangerous diseases – such as Zika, dengue, West Nile virus and malaria – are able to track us down so quickly while ignoring other warm-blooded animals; an ability they’ve developed in just the past few thousand years. Their preprint manuscript  “Chemical signatures of human odour generate a unique neural code in the brain of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes,” was posted to BioRXiv with multiple other co-authors on November 2, 2020.

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Hosts / Producers

Ryan Watkins & Doug Leigh

How to Cite

Watkins, R., Leigh, D., Zhao, Z., & McBride, L.. (2021). Parsing Science – How Mosquitoes Target Us. doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.14110274 


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


Zhilei Zhao: What’s very interesting about the system is: in Africa, the mosquitoes in Africa, they don’t specifically like humans.

Lindy McBride: Yeah, they are generalists.

Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science, the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.

Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. Today, in Episode 94 of Parsing Science, we’ll talk with Zhilei Zhao and Lindy McBride from Princeton about their research into how mosquitoes that can carry dangerous diseases – such as Zika, dengue, West Nile virus and malaria – are able to track us down so quickly, while ignoring other warm blooded animals … an ability they’ve evolved in just the past few thousand years. Here’s Zhilei Zhao and Lindy McBride.

Zhao: Hello, my name is Zhilei Zhao. I’m a graduate student in Lindy’s lab. Actually, the first graduate student in Lindy’s lab. I’m from, like, a small village in China. I went to Peking University in Beijing [to] study Life Sciences. So it’s very broad. Like, we study a lot of things. I did my thesis on the evolutionary genomics in Drosophila fruit flies. I took a gap year in the same lab to finish the study. And then I applied to the greatest school in the United States. And in Lindy’s lab, I’ve been studying … focusing on the neurobiology side, to study the question: at the neural level, how could the mosquito tell the difference between humans and animals?

McBride: And my name is Lindy McBride. I grew up in upstate New York, a suburb of Rochester, New York. I was always interested in animals and plants and being outside. I ended up choosing a really kind of wilderness-y place to go to college, Williams College in western Massachusetts, in the Berkshire mountains. Then I took a few years off. I wanted to travel – I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I decided to travel a little first – I did field research in Tanzania. I became an Outward Bound instructor in Minnesota for a year. Did some more field research in Peru. And ended up at University of California Davis for graduate school. And from there – I was a grad student, actually for seven years, so it’s quite a long PhD – then I went and did a postdoc at Rockefeller University in New York. Before starting my position here at Princeton University, where I’m jointly appointed in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Neuroscience Institute.

Watkins: A mosquito is any member of a group of about 3500 species of small insects belonging to the order diptera, or flies. And, as we learned in Episode 78 with Richard Bomphrey – on how mosquitoes can detect surfaces using the airflow caused by the movement of their own wings – only female mosquitoes bite. Since Zhilei and Lindy study the yellow fever mosquito – Aedes aegypti – we asked them to tell us more about this particular species.

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