BMJ 1996;312:1105 (27 April) Cheese, toes, and mosquitoes A whiff on the evening train announces that the

person opposite you has sweaty f eet. In a delicatessen, the same smell can be both wholesome and welcome--an ind ication that you are approaching the cheese counter. Bart Knols and Ruurd De Jon g have another use for the reek that emanates alike from unwashed feet and delec table cheese. The Dutch entomologists think they can exploit it to trap mosquito es and thus help to combat malaria. Working at Wageningen Agricultural University, they have been investigating the chemical features of humans that attract vectors of malaria, especially Anophele s gambiae. Carbon dioxide in the breath is one powerful attractant. But there ar e others. Confronted by what Knols and De Jong call a naked, motionless human ho st, mosquitoes tend to go for the feet and ankles. Their intense interest in tho se regions correlates well with particular combinations of skin temperature and density of eccrine sweat glands. However, the researchers have found that washing the subjects' feet and ankles w ith non-perfumed but bactericidal soap diverts the mosquitoes to other parts of the body. This has prompted them to investigate odours, especially those that ca n emanate strongly from the feet and ankles, which may account for A gambiae's p redilection. For whatever reason, the people of Holland have always been particularly conscio us of the similarity between pedal pongs and the aroma of a fine cheese. Their l anguage even has a word, "Tenenkaas" (literally "toes-cheese"), to describe the effluvia generated by perspiring phalanges. And one of the most powerful foot-li ke stinks of all is produced by a particular pride of the Netherlands--Limburger cheese. The origin of that characteristic smell is microbial. Limburger is ripened by co ryneform bacteria such as Brevibacterium linens, close relatives of which form p art of the normal bacterial flora of the feet. The cheese contains short-chain f atty acids, which also occur in human sweat. And among the substances produced b y coryneform bacteria in cheese and on sweaty feet is methanethiol, a peculiarly pungent molecule that contributes powerfully to the stink of both. Maybe Limburger cheese could be used as a bait to attract and trap A gambiae--es pecially the blood-seeking females that transmit malarial parasites to humans. A s they report in Parasitology Today (1996;12:159), Knols and De Jong have now te sted the idea. They constructed traps, with or without air blown over Limburger, and exposed them to hungry mosquitoes. In the same period of time, the smelly t raps caught more than twice as many A gambiae as those without the smell. Knols and De Jong caution against too ready an acceptance of the idea that the c heesy odour worked because of its similarity to sweaty feet. But this does seem to be the most likely explanation of their results. As they observe, it is remar kable that mosquitoes so strongly drawn to the human body are also attracted tow ards an odour from something distinctly non-human. Unless the two pongs had a common origin. Could some of the bacteria in cheese h ave come, long ago, from its early makers, sweating over their work? And is toda y's concern for scrupulous cleanliness in the dairy depriving future gourmets of delicious aromas still confined to the crevices of the human body?--BERNARD DIX ON, European contributing editor, Biotechnology Bernard Dixon

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