New mos­quito trap keeps just the bad bugs


A smart trap for mos­qui­toes? A new high-tech ver­sion is promis­ing to catch the blood­suck­ers while let­ting friendlier in­sects es­cape - and even record the ex­act weather con­di­tions when dif­fer­ent species emerge to bite.

Whether it re­ally could im­prove pub­lic health is still to be de­ter­mined. But when the ro­botic traps were pi­lot-tested around Hous­ton last sum­mer, they ac­cu­rately cap­tured par­tic­u­lar mos­quito species - those ca­pa­ble of spread­ing the Zika virus and cer­tain other dis­eases - that health of­fi­cials wanted to track, re­searchers re­ported Thurs­day.

The traps act like “a field bi­ol­o­gist in real time that’s mak­ing choices about the in­sects it wants to cap­ture,” said Mi­crosoft lead re­searcher Ethan Jack­son, who dis­played a pro­to­type trap at a meet­ing of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Science in Boston.

The traps are part of Mi­crosoft’s broader Project Pre­mo­ni­tion, aimed at learn­ing how to spot early signs of out­breaks.

“It catches peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion,” said Univer­sity of Florida med­i­cal en­to­mol­ogy professor Jonathan Day, who isn’t in­volved with the project. “But whether it is ac­tu­ally a trap that will func­tion­ally im­prove sur­veil­lance, I think that re­mains to be seen.”

Trap­ping is a key part of mos­quito sur­veil­lance and con­trol, im­por­tant so health of­fi­cials know where to spray or take other mea­sures to fight mos­quito-borne dis­eases. Trap­ping hasn’t changed much in dec- ades: Typ­i­cally net traps are out­fit­ted with mos­quito-at­tract­ing bait and a fan, and suck in what­ever in­sect gets close enough. En­to­mol­o­gists later sort the bugs for the ones they want.

Jack­son’s trap con­sists of 64 “smart cells,” com­part­ments out­fit­ted with an in­frared light beam. When an in­sect crosses the beam, its shadow changes the light in­ten­sity in a way that forms al­most a fin­ger­print for that species, Jack­son said.

Pro­gram the trap for the de­sired species - such as the Aedes ae­gypti mos­quito that is the main Zika threat - and when one flies into a cell, its door snaps closed. In pi­lot test­ing in Harris County, Texas, last July and Au­gust, the trap was more than 90 per cent ac­cu­rate in iden­ti­fy­ing the in­sect buzzing through the door, Jack­son said.

Harris County al­ready is well known in pub­lic health for strong mos­quito sur­veil­lance, and had been keep­ing a sharp eye out for Zika - for­tu­nately find­ing none. But mos­quito con­trol di­rec­tor Mustapha Deb­boun called the high-tech trap promis­ing, and is look­ing for­ward to larger scale test­ing this sum­mer.

When each mos­quito is cap­tured, sen­sors record the time, tem­per­a­ture, hu­mid­ity and other fac­tors, to show what en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions have dif­fer­ent species buzzing. That’s in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cials might use to sched­ule pes­ti­cide spray­ing.

The next step: Rapid ge­netic scans of the mos­qui­toes’ blood check for harm­ful pathogens - and can tell what an­i­mal the mos­quito had been bit­ing, Jack­son said. If that work pans out, he said the data may help pre­dict emerg­ing dis­eases.

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