From DEET to Sweet

Sep 3, 2009

Congratulations are in order.

Chemical ecologist Walter Leal, professor and former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, has just been selected a Fellow of the Entomological Society of America, a prestigious honor granted to only 10 or few members of the 6000-member organization each year.

Leal is internationally known for his pioneering and innovative work on insect communication.

“This is a highly prestigious honor and richly deserved,” said Michael Parrella, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and one of 10 other UC Davis entomologists named ESA Fellows since 1947.

May Berenbaum, professor and head of the Department of Entomology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, one of the scientists who supported his nomination, praised him as a "trail blazer" and lauded his leadership.

Leal and his lab discovered the secret mode of DEET, the insect repellent. For some 50 years, scientists figured it worked by either jamming the insect's senses or masking the smell of the host. Not so. In groundbreaking research, the Leal lab showed that mosquitoes can indeed smell DEET, but they avoid it because they don't like the smell.

In other words, it smells bad. That's why they avoid it.

The groundbreaking research, published Aug. 18, 2008 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is among the most widely downloaded and cited PNAS documents.

Leal's pheromone work has graced the cover of several journals, including Structure, and has been showcased in the popular press, including the BBC, New York Times, and National Public Radio.

Leal has identified and synthesized complex pheromones from such insects as scarab beetles, true bugs, longhorn beetles, moths, and the naval orangeworm.

Entomologist Bruce Hammock, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology, said Leal’s  research has “practical implications in explaining how insects communicate within species, how they detect host and non-host plants, and how insect parasites detect their prey.”

Leal's navel orangeworm work alone is certain to result in a multi-million dollar beneficial impact on crops ranging from almonds to citrus, Hammock said. Leal's research on mosquito behavior is crucial to controlling vectorborne diseases like West Nile virus and malaria.

World-class research.

World-class researcher.

And now, an honor to match.

By Kathy Keatley Garvey
Author - Communications specialist

Attached Images:

WALTER LEAL is a newly selected Fellow of the Entomological Society of America, a prestigious award granted to only 10 or fewer members of the 6000-member organization each year. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Walter Leal