Researchers at the University of California-Riverside have discovered the way that DEET-containing products repel bugs — findings that could open the door to a new line of safer, DEET-free repellents that keep mosquitoes and other pests at bay by mimicking the chemical's action.
The findings, reported in the journal Nature, indicate olfactory receptors in insects cause them to be repelled by DEET — N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide — and that three safer compounds that mimic DEET work as well, offering a new way to prevent the transmission of deadly bug-borne diseases.
Scientists had no idea why DEET repels bugs. But the UC scientists' discovery could offer new ways to target malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, and yellow fever.
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"Until now, no one had a clue about which olfactory receptor insects used to avoid DEET," said Anandasankar Ray, an associate professor who led the research team. "Without the receptors, it is impossible to apply modern technology to design new repellents to improve upon DEET."
Introduced in the 1940s, DEET has remained unchanged for the past 65 years largely because the receptor in insects for DEET was unknown. Capable of dissolving plastics and nylon, DEET has been reported to cause nervous system changes in mammals.
"Our three compounds, which we tested rigorously in the lab, do not dissolve plastics," Ray said. "They are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for consumption as flavors or fragrances, and are already being used as flavoring agents in some foods. But now they can be applied to bed-nets, clothes, curtains — making them ward off insects."
The three natural compounds, identified by Ray's group, that mimic DEET are methyl N,N-dimethyl anthranilate, ethyl anthranilate and butyl anthranilate.
The research funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.
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