Tech firms develop unique devices to tackle Zika-spreading mosquitoes

Technology firms including Microsoft and life sciences company Verily are forming partnerships with public health officials in several US states to test high-tech tools designed to reduce or eradicate the impact of Zika-spreading mosquitoes.

In Texas, 10 mosquito traps called Project Premonition made by Microsoft are operating in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston.

Roughly the size of large birdhouses, the devices use robotics, infrared sensors, machine learning and cloud computing to help health officials keep tabs on potential disease carriers.

Most conventional mosquito traps capture all comers - moths, flies, other mosquito varieties - leaving a pile of specimens for entomologists to sort through. The Microsoft machines differentiate insects by measuring a feature unique to each species: the shadows cast by their beating wings. When a trap detects an Aedes aegypti in one of its 64 chambers, the door slams shut.

The machine “makes a decision about whether to trap it,” said Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft engineer who is developing the device.

Researcher Ethan Jackson places the Project Premonition mosquito trap in the wild

The Houston tests, begun last summer, showed the traps could detect Aedes aegypti and other medically important mosquitoes with 85 per cent accuracy, Jackson said.

The machines also record shadows made by other insects as well as environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. The data can be used to build models to predict where and when mosquitoes are active.

Mustapha Debboun, director of Harris County’s mosquito and vector control division, said the traps save time and give researchers more insight into mosquito behaviour. “For science and research, this is a dream come true,” he said.

The traps are prototypes now. But Microsoft’s Jackson said the company eventually hopes to sell them for a few hundred dollars each, roughly the price of conventional traps. The goal is to spur wide adoption, particularly in developing countries, to detect potential epidemics before they start.

“What we hope is (the traps) will allow us to bring more precision to public health,” Jackson said.

Other companies, meanwhile, are developing technology to shrink mosquito populations by rendering male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes sterile. When these sterile males mate with females in the wild, their eggs don’t hatch.

The strategy offers an alternative to chemical pesticides. But it requires the release of millions of laboratory-bred mosquitoes into the outdoors. Males don’t bite, which has made this an easier sell to places now hosting tests.

Oxitec, an Oxford, England-based division of Maryland-based Intrexon Corp, is creating male mosquitoes genetically modified to be sterile. It has already deployed them in Brazil, and is seeking regulatory approval for tests in Florida and Texas.

MosquitoMate Inc, a start-up formed by researchers at the University of Kentucky, is using a naturally occurring bacterium called Wolbachia to render male mosquitoes sterile.

One of the biggest challenges is sorting the sexes.

At MosquitoMate’s labs in Lexington, immature mosquitoes are forced through a sieve-like mechanism that separates the smaller males from the females. These mosquitoes are then hand-sorted to weed out any stray females that slip through.

“That’s basically done using eyeballs,” said Stephen Dobson, MosquitoMate’s chief executive.

Enter Verily, a California life sciences company. The company is automating mosquito sorting with robots to make it faster and more affordable. Company officials declined to be interviewed. But on its website, Verily says it is combining sensors, algorithms and “novel engineering” to speed the process.

Verily and MosquitoMate have teamed up to test their technology in Fresno, California, where Aedes aegypti arrived in 2013. The study, which still needs state and federal approval, is scheduled for later this summer.

Last month Brazilian scientists demonstrated a cheap biosensor that can quickly detect mosquito-spread dengue infections that infects millions each year. 

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