Wright award winner: John Carlson

March 09, 2006, volume 35, no. 5
By Roberta Staley

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When John Carlson heard that he was recipient of the 2005 Frank Allison Linville R.H. Wright award in olfactory research, he celebrated by taking all of his 18 Yale University laboratory staff out for dinner.

Carlson booked a table at his favourite Nepalese restaurant, which serves up aromatic entrees of smoked fish and roasted and minced meat with curry, mustard, ginger and hot-pickle relishes, accompanied by lentil, vegetable, bean and rice dishes.

You can imagine the mouthwatering aroma - which is exactly what a mosquito is thinking when a human entree strolls by, oblivious to imminent attack from a 15 millimetre-long member of the Culicidae family.

Unfortunately, among the world's most poverty-stricken nations, the malaria protozoan that is transferred to a human host via a mosquito jab can be fatal. Malaria is most deadly in Africa, killing about one million people a year - mainly young children.

When Carlson began his research many years ago into the molecular and cellular basis of olfaction and taste in insects at the New Haven, Connecticut university, he didn't expect that his studies would lead to a possible solution to this modern-day scourge.

The practical applications for his work include creating new insect repellants to keep mosquitoes away, as well as attractants for developing mosquito traps.

"This is an environmentally friendly and inexpensive alternative to harmful insecticides like DDT," which is banned in North America says Carlson, a Yale professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

Carlson will discuss his findings in a series of lectures March 13 to 16 at SFU Burnaby and SFU Vancouver (Harbour Centre) campuses.

It isn't just mosquitoes that are destructive to human health and well-being. Insects damage one third of the world's agricultural produce. "There is an enormous possibility of benefiting agriculture through understanding how insect pests find the foods they eat and the crops they destroy," Carlson says.

The Wright award was established in 1984 by Frank Allison Linville with the support of General Monitors Inc. in recognition of the accomplishments of B.C. chemist Robert Wright in the area of olfaction.

The $30,000 prize is awarded annually to an individual in recognition of outstanding and ongoing achievements in olfaction research.

Lectures on How Do Fruit Flies Find Bananas And How Do Mosquitoes Find Us? are March 13 at 3 p.m. at the Diamond alumni club at SFU Burnaby and March 16 at 7 p.m. in room 7000 at SFU Vancouver, Harbour Centre.

Research seminars on Odor Reception and Coding in Drosophila are on March 14 at noon in the life science building at UBC and March 15 at 1 p.m. in room 126 of the Halpern centre at SFU Burnaby.

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