Many of us have probably wondered to ourselves while swatting away pesky mosquitos if these itch-inducing creatures exist solely to ruin our fun and buzz in our ears. As it turns out, Ethan Jackson, a researcher at Microsoft, has found that mosquitos can actually serve a great purpose.
Mosquitoes possess important data that we can use to learn about how dangerous diseases spread, which larger animals have been infected, and, with the right technology, can help us predict when and where an outbreak may occur. Harnessing this information is what Jackson and his team have been working towards by developing their new Premonition monitors.
Diseases such as Ebola and the Covid-19 virus spread from animals to humans, a phenomenon that is happening increasingly as humans continue to destroy habitats and shrink natural spaces. Jackson and his team realized that mosquitos may be able to help track pathogens because “they’re pretty good at sneaking in and getting a blood sample from an animal and escaping.”
To attract mosquitos, the team built a new robotic platform that lures insects inside the small, cube-shaped device by emitting CO2 and blue light. In just one night, a single device can examine thousands of mosquitoes and some are captured for genetic testing.
The same robotic platform can also provide critical data about mosquitos that carry diseases like Zika that kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. In fact, at the beginning of the Zika outbreak in 2015, a team in Harris County, Texas, tested early versions of this technology; these devices used sensors to monitor how mosquitoes fly, then used artificial intelligence to recognize patterns on the mosquitoes’ wings to distinguish between species. When a species known to carry a dangerous disease is identified, the system predicts where the mosquitoes will be next so that the government can proactively protect these areas.
Now, Microsoft wants to expand its network of Premonition monitors. The initiative will focus on mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and malaria, but can also provide crucial information about other pathogens that are spreading between animals. Jackson says, “What [we] want to see is, is this virus moving around the environment in a way that is hinting at a future problem?”
The new sensor network has the potential to help us address potential diseases and viruses—like Covid-19—before they become a full-blown global pandemic.