Brighton University scientists have won a £194,000 grant to study the buzzing noise made by mosquitoes.
Their aim is to hinder the spread of malaria which kills up to 3,000 people – mainly children – every day.
Professor Ian Russell, an auditory neuroscientist, will lead the research with Dr Gabriella Gibson, an expert in mosquito sensory behaviour.
They will study the ways that male and female mosquitoes use their buzzing sound to recognise and perhaps attract each other.
They hope to understand the significance of mosquito love duets and how they might be used to control the breeding behaviour of mosquitoes and the spread of malaria.
Professor Russell said: “It has been known for some time that dulcet flight tones, the familiar whine people hear when mosquitos fly close, are music to the male mosquito’s ear, guiding him through sound alone to rendezvous with a potential mate.”
The male’s hearing organ, found at the base of its antenna, is the most sensitive of all known invertebrate ears.
Professor Russell, who heads the Hearing Research Group at Brighton University’s School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, has discovered that the female’s hearing comes a close second.
He said: “We have shown that as soon as a male-female pair of flying mosquitoes can hear each other’s flight tones, they enter into a harmonising duet, each adjusting the frequency of their own wing-beats to match, or nearly match, a harmonic of their flight tone with a harmonic of the other.
“What starts as a discordant cacophony resolves quickly toward harmony.
“That mosquitoes harmonise is remarkable and provides them with a means of sex recognition and possibly species recognition. But how they harmonise is, however, not fully understood, and is the subject of our research.”
A new BBC film on the devastating effects of malaria was produced for this year’s Red Nose Day today (Friday 15 March).
The film is called Mary & Martha and was written by Richard Curtis. It tells the story of two women whose sons died from malaria in South Africa and their campaign for more funds for prevention and relieving suffering.
It stars Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank and Bafta winner Brenda Blethyn.
Mosquitoes are the most common carriers of malaria. They spread the disease when females bite to draw blood which is essential for them to produce their eggs.
According to the World Health Organisation, there were 219 million documented cases of malaria in 2010 and more than 1.2 million people died from the disease.
Professor Russell said: “Malaria is one of the world’s biggest killers and by learning more about mating sounds and habits of mosquitoes we can learn ways of controlling their breeding habits and, in the long term, reduce the spread of malaria.”
The £194,000 grant has come from the Leverhulme Trust which makes awards for the support of research and education. It was started by the Victorian businessman William Lever, who founded Lever Brothers.
Professor Russell is leading the two-year research project with Dr Gibson, from the Natural Resources Institute at Greenwich University.
They will be helped by Rob Ingham, an insect neurophysiologist from Brighton University, and a Brighton University postdoctoral research fellow, to be appointed.