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Sweeping the skies clear of malaria

BioPhotonics
Apr 2009
Lynn Savage, Features Editor, lynn.savage@laurin.com

At the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference held in February in California, Bill Gates spoke about the problem of malaria to an audience of upper-echelon technologists, business executives, designers, entertainers and scientists. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 350 million people contract malaria every year, and more than 1 million of them die from the disease, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa.

To highlight the need to think of the disease as an immediate concern – not merely the problem of people in Africa, where malaria is most prevalent – Gates opened a jar containing scores of mosquitoes, setting them loose into the auditorium.

Post.jpgNo celebrities were harmed – these insects were malaria-free.

Although his point was to get people to think of malaria and the mosquitoes that carry it as something more than a problem of the poor, he would have gotten even more attention if he had used a new tool under his purview and blasted the pests out of the air with a laser.

At Intellectual Ventures LLC in Bellevue, Wash., researchers are finishing development of a laser-based “weapon of mosquito destruction,” as they have dubbed it. Backed by donors such as Gates, the enterprise actively works as a technology percolator. Intellectual Ventures’ co-creator, Nathan Myhrvold, was asked by Gates, his former boss, to use the firm’s resources to find new ways to combat the spread of malaria. Soon after, the firm hired astrophysicists Jordin Kare, formerly of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Lowell Wood, who once worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” program.

Led by Kare and Wood, the scientists are using the key idea of Star Wars – shooting down missiles with high-energy beams – on a much smaller scale. A key problem, however, is the mosquito’s size, which makes targeting difficult. They overcame this problem not by looking for the bugs – with hi-res cameras, for example – but by listening for them. A sensor listens for the hum of a mosquito’s wings beating, tracks the creature, then blasts it with a laser beam. The system is sensitive enough so that it tracks only mosquitoes, not other, beneficial insects. It even can distinguish between male and female mosquitoes, which may come in handy because only females feed on blood and, therefore, transmit disease.

Intellectual Ventures foresees the possibility of using its systems to enforce mosquito-free barriers around entire villages or of integrating them with pilotless drone aircraft to patrol the skies in search of fresh buzzing targets.


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