HU's Newest Faculty: How do Mosquitos Find Us?

Dr. Jonathan Bohbot. Photo by Nati Shohat Flash 90Dr. Jonathan Bohbot specializes in the neurobiology of insect olfaction. A graduate of the University Pierre & Marie Curie in Paris (B.Sc. and M.Sc.), Dr. Bohbot completed his doctorate at the University of South Carolina and began seriously studying mosquitoes during his post-doctorate at Vanderbilt University.

The timing to identify the olfactory receptors in mosquitoes during his post-doctorate was ripe—mosquitoes have been a perpetual scourge on society with their ability to spread life-threatening diseases and scientists have long contemplated methods to prevent mosquitoes from interacting with their human hosts.  The scientific community had just sequenced the entire genome for the mosquito, and with funding from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Bohbot embarked on research to identify the gene family of “smell” receptors in the yellow fever mosquito. Researchers had already completed a similar project on the malaria mosquito, a very different type of mosquito, and Dr. Bohbot and his colleagues were surprised to discover that these two very divergent mosquito species actually shared a handful of similar olfactory receptors.

This discovery allowed Dr. Bohbot to join the United States Department of Agriculture and The Department of Defense to identify the molecular targets of insect repellants i.e. which mosquito olfactory receptors respond to insect repellants and how repellants interfere with their normal function.

Research at HUJI

Dr. Bohbot continues to explore the relationship between the olfactory receptors and outside stimulants. Noting that the typical mosquito has over 110 smell receptors alone, Dr. Bohbot is looking to expand our knowledge of these insect sensors beyond the few dozen currently identified in the scientific community. In particular, he is characterizing mosquito receptors that detect similar odorants with hope of understanding how they bind and discriminate these compounds.

The knowledge from his research can be applied to improve drug formations affecting insect behavior and to design odorant receptor-based biosensors—i.e, an electronic nose. Such long-term practical applications would have a reach far beyond preventing mosquitoes from transmitting disease. Biosensors could eventually be applied to detect diseases in humans and even to detect contaminated food.

On his move to Israel

Although he did not grow up or spend time studying in Israel, Dr. Bohbot was raised in a passionate Zionist family and has always dreamed of being part of the Israeli journey. “It is more meaningful for me to be doing research in Israel than anywhere else in the world,” he explained.  “I have no interest in returning to France or Europe. Israel and the Hebrew University are my home now.”