Tech companies wage war on disease-carrying mosquitoes
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.
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.