Tech com­pa­nies wage war on dis­ease-car­ry­ing mos­qui­toes

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

CHICAGO — US tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies are bring­ing au­to­ma­tion and ro­bot­ics to the age-old task of bat­tling mos­qui­toes in a bid to halt the spread of Zika and other mos­quito-borne mal­adies world­wide.

Com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft and Ver­ily are form­ing part­ner­ships with pub­lic health of­fi­cials to test new high-tech tools.

In Texas, Mi­crosoft is test­ing a smart trap to iso­late and cap­ture Aedes ae­gypti mos­qui­toes, known Zika car­ri­ers, for study by en­to­mol­o­gists to give them a jump on pre­dict­ing out­breaks.

Ver­ily, Al­pha­bet’s life sciences di­vi­sion based in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, is speeding the process for cre­at­ing ster­ile male mos­qui­toes to mate with fe­males in the wild, of­fer­ing a form of birth con­trol for the species.

While it may take years for these ad­vances to be­come widely avail­able, pub­lic health ex­perts say new play­ers brings fresh think­ing to vec­tor con­trol, which still re­lies heav­ily on tra­di­tional de­fenses such as lar­vi­cides and in­sec­ti­cides.

“It’s ex­cit­ing when tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies come on board,” said Anan­dasankar Ray, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of en­to­mol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side.

“Their ap­proach to a bi­o­log­i­cal chal­lenge is to en­gi­neer a so­lu­tion.”

The Zika epi­demic that emerged in Brazil in 2015 and left thou­sands of ba­bies suf­fer­ing from birth de­fects has added ur­gency to the ef­fort.

Keep­ing tabs

The 10 traps be­ing tri­aled in Texas 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.

Other com­pa­nies are also car­ry­ing out test­ing. Ox­itec in the United King­dom is cre­at­ing male mos­qui­toes ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied to be ster­ile. It has al­ready de­ployed them in Brazil, and is seek­ing reg­u­lato-

ry ap­proval for tests in Florida and Texas.

MosquitoMate Inc, a startup 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 sieve­like 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. 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’s com­bin­ing sen­sors, al­go­rithms and “novel engi­neer­ing” to speed up the process.

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