Killing mosquitos with laser


12:00 pm - March 21st 2009

by Debi Linton    


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Star Wars scientists use laser gun to kill mosquitoes in fight against malaria

Yes, that’s the actual headline the Telegraph used, reporting on an article in the Wall Street Journal this week, reporting on work to develop a laser weapon that can shoot individual mosquitoes out of the air. It homes in on the distinctive sound frequency produced by their wingbeats. 1980s Star Wars technology being used in the fight against disease. Excuse my Americanism: That’s awesome.

Well, unless you’re the kind of person who sees a story like this and immediately asks What’s the point? and Can picking off one mosquito at a time really make a difference? or an ecology minded person who wonders what kind of effect genus-level genocide would have on an ecology in which Anopheles have been a factor for about 70 million years.

The Malaria Problem
Mosquitoes transmit malaria. Some mosquitoes are infected with the parasitic protest Plasmodium, which when it infects humans, causes malaria. The WHO factsheet on this disease says there were 247 million cases of malaria in 2006, and 880 thousand deaths, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not going to bother detailing the economic impact of the epidemic, I think the humanitarian effort on its own is worth it.

There is currently no vaccine available for malaria; direct treatment of the disease is currently in the forms of curative and preventative drugs. And historically they’ve been very effective. Unfortunately, and as annoying as Jeff Goldblum was in Jurassic Park, Life will find a way. Evolution happens. If you keep hitting a population with drugs designed to kill them, soon the entire population will be descended from those organisms that were resistant to drugs. New drugs work well for a few years, then resistance evolves. And that’s not even taking into account the very real problems with getting the drugs to the poverty-striken areas where they’re most needed, and the volume of counterfeit drugs on the market. Research proceeds into vaccinations, but in the meantime drugs are being supplemented by a method known as vector control. And that’s where mosquitoes come in.

Vector Control
The vector is the means of transmission of a disease, and in the case of malaria this is Plasmodium-carrying mosquitoes. Vector control, therefore, involves trying to stem the population of mosquitoes. Fewer mosquitoes means fewer people will be infected, and a slowing down of the spread of the disease. The most effective method of this is widespread destruction of suitable mosquito habitat, but that has all sorts of impact on local ecology; it’s a bit like paving over your entire garden because one species of flower gives you hayfever. The past fifty years has seen insecticides such as rise as the main form of vector control, but aside from the major ecological impact that these chemicals have on the environment, we have the same pesky problem that we do with attacking Plasmodium directly: organisms evolve; what doesn’t kill a population makes it stronger, and if a pesticide doesn’t irradicate a species in a few generations, it’s just another selection pressure in the environment for species to react to.

So research into other forms of mosquito control becomes a sexy topic – and there’s nothing grant providers like better than a sexy topic. Genetic manipulation of both mosquitoes and Plasmodium are being developed, along with a variety of interesting or bizarre techniques such as sense disruption. The laser beam was developed using a grant by the Gates Foundation, and has been named the Weapon of Mosquito Destruction, which just goes to show that scientists as well as computer engineers have an incredibly dorky senses of humour.

Ecological Considerations
I really do hate to be a killjoy sometimes, but deliberate extinction of any organism is not an endeavour to be taken lightly. Species interact with their environments in complex and sometimes subtle ways, and massive scale population reduction could have serious effects on other populations on the area, possibly even affecting agriculture and having a human impact.

Except – mosquitoes have no major predators relying on them for sustenance. No flowering plant is completely dependant on the nectar drinking males for pollination. They play a part in ecology, but they don’t appear to exclusively fill a niche upon which the ecosystem depends. I’m still not going to throw a party for mosquito extinction, and I wouldn’t say it’s a worthy aim, but they’re true pests, and this is one occasion when I don’t feel that bad about looking at a newly invented instrument of death, and say: damn, that’s cool.

It is cool; It’s a LASER BEAM that locates, targets and shoots down individual mosquitoes. There is nothing in that that isn’t cool.

And the very serious professional zoologists in my office have all agreed it has to look like an individual robot gun that spins on a dome-shaped turret, saying ‘target acquired’ in a little robot voice. Because what would be the point otherwise?

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About the author
This is a guest post. Debi is a museum-based science communicator, who has a job now but is still working on her PhD. She blogs about a range of subjects at Advancing the Sum Total of Human Knowledge and Endeavour
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Health ,Science

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Reader comments


“It is cool; It’s a LASER BEAM that locates, targets and shoots down individual mosquitoes. There is nothing in that that isn’t cool.

And the very serious professional zoologists in my office have all agreed it has to look like an individual robot gun that spins on a dome-shaped turret, saying ‘target acquired’ in a little robot voice. Because what would be the point otherwise?”

I love you guys.

Another really interesting technique they’ve been looking at is creating GM mozzies that are much poorer at transmitting and incubating the Plasmodium parasite.

Some of the vaccination work is actually looking giving the mozzies antibodies against malaria so that, again their effectiveness as vectors is reduced.

3. Shatterface

I can’t wait to see all those shops and off-licences using ‘mosquito’ devices to disperse kids get hit by friendly fire.

What’s wrong with Star Wars? You trekkie fanatics

5. Shatterface

Have you SEEN Phantom Menace!?!?

Phantom Menace isn’t Star Wars. You know it to be true.

Incidentally, I didn’t choose the photo that Sunny’s inserted into the post, but I do believe it is now my favourite part of the entire piece.

8. Shatterface

Great photo for a caption contest…

A few things…

One. Outstanding debut, Debi. Brilliant.

Two. Anyone else who refers to The Phantom Menace as a “Star-Wars” film, will find themselves at the mercy of my editorial privilege. Be warned.

Three. Star Trek is rubbish. Star-Wars rules. Debate over.

Four…

They play a part in ecology, but they don’t appear to exclusively fill a niche upon which the ecosystem depends.

Sorry, but someone has to say it… cull humans?

Aaron.

Outstanding debut, Debi

Dude? It’s her 3rd post here. Some editor you are. Also?

Star Trek is rubbish. Star-Wars rules.

Jennie is at work. Jennie will return home at approx 1am GMT. At that point? I suspect you’ll be wanting to hide somewhere.

Personally, I love Star Wars as a great fantasy story with an amasing special effects budget. Star Trek, OTOH, it merely medicore SF.

But given that Star Wars is only a fantasy story with space ships instead of dragons, whereas Star Trek is proper SF that attempts to address real issues, that puts them roughly on a par, as great fantasy is roughly equivalent to mid range SF, as any fule kno.

I’d still rather watch Babylon 5. Or BSG. Oh, wait, I’m half way through Andromeda on VoD. That’s something I can do before going to pick her up.

Um, what was the actual topic of the post again? Oh yeah, mosquitoes. It’d be nice if we could stop them being bloody annoying before they infest southern England.

*mediocre. Not medicore.

Star Wars is plotless rubbish and Industrial Light and Magic is the main driving force behind the style-over-content special effects bollocks that has driven Hollywood ever since. I detest it.

At least Trek attempted plots even if they didn’t always make sense, or had a lot of Deus Ex Machina.

Sorry, but I’m with my editor here… SW rulez.

Back to the picture – Flickr, Debi! always handy.

I should have credited it though… completely forgot :-/

14. Shatterface

Star Trek: The Original Series was about a navy frigate in space, Star Trek: TNG was about a flying office. Despite the dodgy sexual politics, TOS stands up well but TNG (Patrick Stewart aside) sucks. DS9 was the best of the franchise by far.

Turn the Star Fleet logo 90 degrees though and what do you get? The Federation logo from Blake’s 7. The Brits have a more cynical view of what an interplanetary superpower would be like.

I forget what this has to do with mosquitos.

15. Shatterface

My rodent knowledge is sadly lacking – what is that in the pic and where can I get one?

Pfffffft. At least Star Wars doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a trope-laden Western in Space (or didn’t, until Lucas caught the crazy). Star Trek devolved the whole science fiction genre into Skiffy.

Where was I? Oh yes. I believe the rodent in question is a ground squirrel, Shatterface.

Oh yeah, and I also had an actually useful thing to say:

Aaron,

They play a part in ecology, but they don’t appear to exclusively fill a niche upon which the ecosystem depends.

Sorry, but someone has to say it… cull humans?

Actually, humans are far far on the other end of the scale. We have a massive and hugely complex interaction with the environment and some ecosystems entirely depend on active human maintenance for their continued existence. Widescale population reduction of H. sap would have a massive effect on the biosphere.

Nature doesn’t really care for our definitions of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’. An ecosystem is an ecosystem

18. Shatterface

I believe there are at least four kinds of lice dependant on humans and it would be a tragedy for them if we died out.

The Chinese Mitten Crab’s plans for world domination would also be somewhat cramped without us ferrying them around in ballast tanks.

Best statement I ever heard about lice was that the “Pubic Louse is also found in the beard and eyebrows, but the reasons for this is unknown”. Clearly 19th century naturalists got out rather too much and were never home in time for tea with the parson…

YAY for science articles!

That ground squirrel’s face really ought to have Debi’s exclamation beneath it as a caption:

‘Excuse my Americanism: That’s awesome.’

Hee hee!

Sorry, Debi… I hadn’t realised you have posted before.

MatGB… One can’t be everywhere at all times, can one? Also, I never said I was a particularly good or attentive editor. Just one of the editors.

more pictures


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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  2. IB

    #lt Guest post on LC Killing mosquitos with laser http://tinyurl.com/cnmkfa

  3. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Killing mosquitos with laser http://tinyurl.com/cnmkfa





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