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Technology Companies Spread the War on Disease-carrying Mosquitoes

American technology companies introduced automation and robotics to the eradication task of mosquitoes that have lasted throughout the ag...

American technology companies introduced automation and robotics to the eradication task of mosquitoes that have lasted throughout the ages as an offer to stop the spread of the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases around the world.

Companies including Microsoft and a California-based company engaged in human benefit, Verily, formed partnerships with public health agencies in several US states to test a variety of high-tech devices.


In Texas, Microsoft tested an intelligent mosquito trap to isolate and catch the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, known as carriers of the Zika virus, for study by insect experts to give them a leap in predicting the outbreak.

Verily, one of the Alphabet divisions who study science that is beneficial to humanity based in Mountain View, California, seeks to speed up the process of breeding barren mosquitoes to mate with female mosquitoes in the wild, as a limitation to the breeding of the species.

Although it may take years until all the progress is widely available, public health experts say these new players bring fresh thinking to control infectious disease insects, which still rely heavily on traditional defense through larval and insecticide exterminators.

"It's interesting when technology companies are joining," said Anandasankar Ray, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside. "Their approach to biological challenges is to engineer solutions."

Smart device

The Zika epidemic that emerged in Brazil in 2015 and caused thousands of babies to have birth defects has pushed the urge to launch the effort.

Although the cases have proven to be slowing, the mosquitoes that carry the virus - Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus - are widespread in the Americas, including some areas in the southern United States.

The majority of the 5,365 Zika cases published in the US have so far, and come from the travelers who infected by the virus elsewhere. Still, the two states - Texas and Florida - have recorded cases transmitted by local mosquitoes, making it a test for new technology.

In Texas, 10 mosquito traps made by Microsoft operate in Harris County, including the city of Houston.

Approximately the size of a large bird cage, these tools use robotics, infrared sensors, machine learning, and cloud computing to help staff closely monitor the potential for disease vectors.

Texas recorded six cases of Zika virus infection by local mosquitoes in November and December last year. Experts believe the true numbers are likely to be higher because most of those who are infected do not show any symptoms.

The pregnant women are at high risk because they can transmit the virus to the fetus, resulting in multiple birth defects.

Such the birth defects include microcephaly, a condition who the infant born will have a head skull and brain size smaller than normal. The World Health Organization declared Zika as a global emergency in February 2016.

Most conventional mosquito devices capture all the insects that come - moths, flies, and other mosquito varieties - leaving a stack of specimens that the insect scribes must re-sort. Microsoft's machines distinguish insects by measuring the unique features of each species: the shadows generated from the flutter of its wings. When a trap detects the Aedes aegypti mosquito in one of its 64 chambers, the trap door immediately closes.

The machine "made the decision whether to trap the insects in a trap or not," said Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft engineer who developed the tool. Also records the shadows who made by other insects as well as environmental conditions such as temperature and moisture. Existing data can be used to build models to predict where and when mosquitoes are active.

Testing in Houston, which began last summer, shows the trap can detect Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and other important medical mosquitoes with an 85 percent accuracy rate, Jackson said.


Mustapha Debboun, director of the division of mosquito and vector insects at Harris County, said the trap could save time and give researchers more insight into mosquito behavior.

"In terms of science and research, this is a dream come true," Mustapha said.

This trap is still in the prototype stage at this time. But Ethan Jackson said Microsoft hopes that when it can sell for a few hundred dollars per unit, it's about the same as the conventional trap price. The goal is to encourage widespread adoption, particularly in developing countries, to detect potential epidemics before they emerge.

"What is our hope is (this trap) will enable us to eradicate mosquitoes more accurately in order to improve public health," said Jackson.

Sort out mosquitoes with robots

Meanwhile, other companies, developing technology to suppress Aedes aegypti male mosquito population by making it barren. When a barren male insect mates with a female insect in the wild, its eggs will not hatch.

This strategy offers an alternative to chemical pesticides.

But it takes millions of mosquitoes that are breeding in the laboratory to be released into the wild. Male of mosquitoes isn't bite, so that now making easier to sell in places of test sites.

Oxitec, a division of British-based Germantown, which is part of Intrexon Corp., is expanding a genetically modified of male mosquito genetically to be a barren. The company has spread it in Brazil, and is awaiting approval from the authorities to conduct trials in Florida and Texas.

MosquitoMate, a startup company set up by a group of researchers at the University of Kentucky, uses an existing bacterium in nature called Wolbachia to make sterile male mosquitoes.

One of the biggest challenges is to sort out mosquitoes by sex.

At the lab of MosquitoMate in Lexington, immature mosquitoes are forced to pass through a filter-like mechanism that separates the male's smaller roses from the female mosquito. These mosquitoes are then separated by hand to remove the female mosquitoes that escape from this mechanism.

"Basically this work is done manually," says Stephen Dobson, chief executive of MosquitoMate.

Introduce Verily and MosquitoMate the company automates the filtration of mosquitoes with robots to make it faster and more affordable. Have worked together to test their technology in Fresno, California where Aedes aegypti arrives in 2013. Officials at the company refused to be interviewed. But on the website, Verily says the company combines sensors, algorithms and "innovative engineering" to speed up the process.

The officials fear that citizens who infected by Zika from elsewhere can spread it in Fresno if they are bitten by a local mosquito and then spread the virus to others.

"This is of great concern to us because this is a major disease-causing insect such as dengue fever, chikungunya, and of course Zika," said Steve Mulligan, manager of the Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District in Fresno County.

The study, which is still awaiting state of federal approval, is scheduled for a summer day.

Image property of AP/Reuters.
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