Mosquitoes are among the biggest spreaders of blood-borne diseases such as malaria. Many Third World countries with poor medical care are in warm, relatively moist regions yielding lots of mosquitoes and little treatment for the illnesses they transmit -- a deadly combination. Malaria alone kills one million people annually.
The solution is to kill the mosquitoes, but insecticides and repellants are typically toxic, expensive, and have the possibility of not working on "super strands" which become resistant to the chemicals. Vaccines for mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria are safer, but still expensive and can only prevent certain diseases. So researchers in Seattle have turned to the decades old Star Wars program for answers for today's mosquito problem.
The Star Wars program aimed to shoot down nuclear missiles with lasers. The new program aims at a much smaller target; it seeks to kill mosquitoes en masse with deadly laser pulses. The researchers, led by Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist formerly with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, have created a laser that can "tag" mosquitoes with pulses of light from 100 feet away. The current laser is non-lethal, but the next version will be a lethal one -- a veritable weapon of mass mosquito destruction (WMMD).
States Kare, "We'd be delighted if we destabilize the human-mosquito balance of power."
The mosquito laser was built of parts scrounged on eBay. And it’s not the only mosquito killing superweapon. With weighty donors like Bill Gates, the United Nations, the U.K. and non-profits such as Malaria No More pouring money into anti-mosquito research, many are creating new forms of death for these pests of the skies.
Szabolcs Márka, a Columbia University researcher who usually specializes in black holes has turned his efforts on these little pests, creating a flashlight that blinds them. He says of mosquito researchers and the explosion of new funding, "You can say we are very lucky -- the right place at the right time."
A myriad of methods including microwaves, rancid odors, poisoned blood and other weapons that disrupt the sense of sight, smell and heat are being tested in labs worldwide. Some are genetically engineering bacteria to kill all mosquitoes, others are genetically engineering superior mosquitoes which are malaria resistant, which will overtake and naturally deselect their malaria-bearing brethren.
One creative Japanese researcher even wants to make mosquitoes into "flying syringes" carrying vaccines to the general public. However, the one scheme that perhaps receives the most attention is the mosquito laser, dreamed up first by Lowell Wood. Mr. Wood worked closely with Edward Teller, who helped develop the first hydrogen bomb and later dreamed up the Star Wars scheme. While the Star Wars program has yet to become a basis of our national defense, Mr. Wood believes a similar scheme can become the basis of our mosquito defense.
Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft Corp. executive and owner of Intellectual Ventures LLC, has helped fund the effort with help from former boss Bill Gates. Dr. Wood has assembled a team which includes Dr. Kare, another Star Wars scientist, an entomologist with a Ph.D in mosquito behavior, and other experts.
Dr. Kare describes, "We like to think back then we made some contribution to the ending of the Cold War" with the Star Wars program. Now we're just trying to make a dent in a war that's actually gone on a lot longer and claimed a lot more lives."
Deployment schemes still have to be worked out -- laser defense perimeters surrounding villages are one possibility, while laser-equipped aerial drones are another. The power of the lasers also needs tweaking to be strong enough to kill mosquitoes, but weak enough to not kill desirable insects like endangered butterflies. States Mr. Myhrvold, "You could kill billions of mosquitoes a night, and you could do so without harming butterflies."
The current implementation uses a Dell computer as the "brains" of the mosquito killer. It uses Maglite flashlights to illuminate mosquitoes, creating silhouettes on a backdrop. A camera spots these silhouettes and blasts the mosquitoes with the laser. Colonies of anopheles stephensi, one species of mosquito that transmits malaria, are cultivated as test victims of the new weapon.
In recent testing, the device scored a number of hits, killing mosquitoes with deadly efficacy, leaving only smoldering carcasses littering the ground. The laser even distinguished, based on wing beat, blood sucking female mosquitoes and relatively innocuous male mosquitoes which feed off of sugary nectar (in the lab they're fed sweet raisins). While the females met death by laser, the males were left blissfully untouched, albeit without female companionship. Mr. Myhrvold describes, "If you really were a purist, you could only kill the females, not the males."
However, he adds that ultimately humans will probably "just slay them all."