Health Technologies To Eradicate Insects Transmitting Deadly Diseases
Drones transporting sterilized male mosquitos, cybernetic dragonflies, genetically modified insects with malaria-resisting traits, supersensitive radars or digital maps: the most innovative methods are deployed in the war on the tiniest but most murderous beasts out there: mosquitos, fleas, ticks carrying infectious diseases. Here’s the latest arsenal of digital technologies to eradicate insects and reduce deadly epidemics.
Unusual suspects: mosquitos, fleas, and ticks
Sharks, bears, tigers, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog in association with sharp teeth and claws represent the traditional image of deadly animals. However, as it turns out, the bloodthirstiest creatures of the animal kingdom are small and for many of us, just annoyances accompanying summer vacations around lakes in the mountains: mosquitos.
These tiny little insects – literally “little flies” in Spanish – kill 725,000 people every year by passing over devastating diseases caused by viruses or parasites. Their list of sins is rather long: malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever or encephalitis. The worst is malaria, which kills more than 600,000 people every year, while it threatens half of the world’s population and causes billions of dollars in lost productivity annually. However, sandflies, triatomine bugs, black flies, ticks, tsetse flies, mites, snails or lice aren’t better either. According to UN figures, they are responsible for another 100,000 death per year; and together with the Mosquito Big Brother, they account for around 17 percent of all infectious diseases.
There are more than 2,500 species of mosquito, and the little fly lives in every corner of the world except Antarctica. The penguins are the lucky ones, it seems. Moreover, some scientists claim that climate change might come with yet another unpleasant consequence: the boost of insect population numbers. Recent examples include the global spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, in which case extreme climatic conditions during one month in several parts of South America in 2015 were followed by the spread of the disease to that location the next month.
Mosquitos play tricks, bees die
That’s why it would be of utmost importance to find effective ways to combat these tiny killers, although that’s not as easy as the little flying creatures are sneaky little disease-transmitters. Mass pesticide spraying is widely used to reduce the mosquito population, even the US Air Force sends their best men against the insect hordes. However, many species have evolved resistance against a variety of widely used insecticides. Moreover, some have changed their feeding habits to avoid bed nets inside the homes, what’s more, insecticide-sprayed bed nets and homes. In many cases, scientists found that the animals changed their feeding habits to avoid getting caught.
At the same time, bees are unfortunately not that shrewd. These diligent, tiny animals are exposed to pesticides which have been directly sprayed on the plants from which worker bees forage or which are moved by the wind from one area to another. These insecticides can kill the bees even before they make it back to the hive, and if they return, they infect their entire colony. To avoid harmful pesticides, but contain vector-borne diseases – that’s the scientific term for infections transmitted by insects -, scientists are experimenting with various technologies and innovations.
Digital maps are not mosquito-friendly
Nicely drawn electronic maps indicating different pieces of information could help prevent, closely follow or monitor epidemics and/or the spread of diseases. Technology is not only able to visualize data but it already “reasons out” grey spots – and thus helps predict events.
In March 2017, HealthTech reported that the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) was using geographic information systems to track and better combat the Zika virus. The CDC has put out a publicly available interactive map to provide states with information about the spread of the virus. Some scientists went even further.
Engadget reported that American researchers were using data from NASA satellites (such as the Landsat series) to predict malaria outbreaks by identifying areas where the soil moisture creates prime breeding grounds for malaria-positive mosquitos. They know that floods and deforestation tend to create mosquito-friendly pools of water – compare that with fine-grained models of human behavior (say, loggers or miners who work in wet conditions) and you have a unified system that can anticipate outbreaks about three months in advance, right down to individual households. How much easier could the fight against the tiny murderers become with predictive maps!
Data flies to the cloud, insects to the grave
Researchers in Puerto Rico approach the problem from the other way around. After Hurricane Maria created ideal conditions for mosquito breeding in 2017, scientists started counting how many females – the sex that bites – are caught in more than 1,300 traps across the island. The initiative is also studying insecticide resistance, applying larvicides to breeding sites, and educating residents. The team stores all data on remote Microsoft Azure servers and relies on the cloud to share information quickly between research teams in the field and the laboratory.
While field workers collect mosquitos and pinpoint their locations on a smartphone app, their supervisor can track their workings, and the smart algorithms can analyze the results. Mapping software pulls data from the cloud to determine which traps have attracted the most female A. aegypti – the mosquito species carrying the Zika virus – and to identify the homes where larvicides have been applied. Moreover, they are also using special algorithms to speed up the mind-numbing process of counting mosquito eggs, which are no bigger than grains of salt. The aim is to enable the prevention of Zika-outbreaks in Puerto Rico even before they would take shape.
Super-sensitive radar might identify whether mosquitos had lunch
Not only the American troops took up arms against the insects. In March 2018, China was reported to be in the process of developing a super-sensitive radar that can detect the wing-flapping of a mosquito up to 2 km (1.2 miles) away.
After decades of development, modern military radars can now pick up the echoes of small objects at an impressive distance. The US Missile Defence Agency’s sea-based X-band radar, for example, can detect a baseball-sized object from about 4,000 km away. Currently, the Chinese believe that super-sensitive detectors could not only sense missiles and aircraft but the wing-beat of insects, too. When the radio waves hit a mosquito, they bounce back with information including species, gender, flying speed and direction, and whether the insect has eaten.
Imagine the radar being positioned to look down on residential areas and used to pinpoint the position of mosquito colonies, their breeding and resting areas. Wouldn’t it be useful if households could be warned about the mosquito hordes through radars beforehand?
Smart algorithms are counting, drones are spreading sterile male mosquitos
Releasing sterile specimen into the wild has proved to be an effective method in decreasing insect populations. Numerous countries experiment with the approach with the help of several technologies. For example, Chinese scientists inject mosquito eggs with Wolbachia bacteria in a laboratory, then release infected male mosquitoes on the island on the outskirts of Guangzhou. The bacteria, which occurs naturally in about a quarter of wild mosquitoes, causes infected males to sterilize the females they mate with. The researchers set up a so-called “mosquito-factory” in 2012 to apply the method, and by 2016, the insect population dropped by 90 percent on the island where the scientists released 3 million bacteria-infected little flies every week.
In 2018, Australia’s James Cook University, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Alphabet’s Verily life biotech division concluded a similar trial. And how could Google’s parent company be of any help? Experts needed to raise 20 million mosquitos for the project to produce the 3 million male insects required for the sterilization process. Verily’s technology helped them sort out the sexes. Last year, Verily participated in a similar project where they released one million sterile mosquitos each week in California.
And while letting out hundreds of thousands of insects assumes a particular method, sometimes it just means that scientists release the mosquitos from their backpacks or a van emblazoned with „Debug Fresno” signs. As the practice doesn’t allow to spread the animals over vast territories, WeRobotics developed special drones for the task. You could have never imagined that in your wildest dreams – unmanned aerial vehicles transport sterilized flying creatures as preventive measures against diseases. As odd as it sounds, it works – and thumbs up for many more similar projects to come!
Gene-editing for healthier mosquitos
Researchers theorized in 2014 that the gene-editing method, CRISPR/Cas9 could create mosquitos that are almost entirely resistant to the parasite that causes malaria. If they used CRISPR to remove a segment of mosquito DNA, they would trick the insect’s genetic system into replacing it with an engineered DNA construct. Some research teams are working on the method, and their efforts are gradually crowned with results.
Target Malaria, a research consortium uniting Imperial College London with partner institutions in Burkina Faso, Mali, Uganda, and Ghana, is currently working with more limited genetic engineering techniques to fight the disease. But they are hoping to apply for approval to test gene drives in the field as soon as 2023. However, there are huge ethical and moral issues around gene editing, which should be figured out – at least broadly – before the method meddling with the blueprint of life comes into motion.
A group of scientists already demonstrated the remote control of insects in free flight via an implantable radio-equipped miniature neural stimulating system back in 2009. Thus it is no wonder that experiments have gradually moved to the next level.
Engineers at the US company called Draper are hoping to create a cybernetic dragonfly that combines “miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology, and neurotechnology.” To steer the dragonflies, the Draper engineers are developing a way of genetically modifying the nervous system of the insects so they can respond to pulses of light. Once they get it to work, this approach, known as optogenetic stimulation, could enable dragonflies to carry payloads or conduct surveillance. Moreover, they could even help honey bees become better pollinators or kill off mosquitos spreading around diseases.
While the idea is definitely worth considering, the implementation process of creating mechanic insects should unfold with the utmost foresight. Do you remember the Hated In The Nation episode of Black Mirror? Tiny remotely controlled, robotic bees took the place of real bees as the animals died out. However, one day a hacker took control of the hives and turned the little creatures into killing machines.
Thus, the question is always there, and not only in connection with cybernetic dragonflies but also with CRISPR or the release of sterilized male mosquitos: do we have enough safety backups to meddle with nature’s processes? Do we have enough knowledge to evaluate the long-term consequences? While we already seem to have lost some battles regarding climate change, perhaps we should think twice before applying genetic engineering or controlled robots – or we might be defeated on another front by mosquitos.
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