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19th-Mar-2009 05:34 pm
webcomics, science
I am so very very tempted to post this news article without comment, aside from “GUYS GUYS THIS IS SO COOL” – which is actually exactly how I am in person and you’d never know I considered myself a serious science communicator in writing.

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 reporting on work to develop a laser weapon that can shoot individual mosquitoes out of the air, homing 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?
19th-Mar-2009 04:53 pm (UTC)
It would be even cooler if each little dome kept score.
19th-Mar-2009 04:59 pm (UTC)
Would this be a good time to mention I have a personal vendetta against the little fuckers after having to put up with them swarming my body every time I went downstairs in Belize?

And unlike the mozzies in the uk, tropical mosquitoes HURT when they are biting you.
19th-Mar-2009 05:18 pm (UTC)
They really should scream EXTERMINATE.

19th-Mar-2009 06:09 pm (UTC)
'Course, if we take "Life will find a way" to its logical end, eventually the mosquitoes will develop reactive plating and other countermeasures. That'll be when the real war begins...
20th-Mar-2009 08:57 am (UTC)
Nah, they're more likely to evolve wings that beat at a different frequency
20th-Mar-2009 11:55 am (UTC)
... and then China will really suffer from hurricanes.
21st-Mar-2009 12:35 am (UTC)
But dont different spieces of mossies already have different frequencies? Also I read earlier this year in Science or Nature that when finding a mate mossies (well the sp. in the study) changed the frequency of wing beats.

So mossie who love will be safe.
21st-Mar-2009 09:15 am (UTC)
1) AND different species mossies have different parasites. And as we're only trying to get rid of the parasite, not the entire mosquito genus.

2) AND males and females have different frequencies, so they adapt the range they're picking up to cover the whole range.

(Deleted comment)
20th-Mar-2009 09:19 am (UTC)
They do, but not exclusively, and even not an extent where mosquito population decline would have an adverse effect on bat populations.
19th-Mar-2009 10:36 pm (UTC)
That is cool and I totally squealed and was about to join in with other Star Wars references, but... there's a killjoy in me just dying to squirm out.

Malaria-infected mosquitoes are a problem in Africa. If I'm remembering right, they're why penicillin was invented in the first place - to allow Europeans to explore and conquer Africa without getting deadered in the first few days via bug bites. Mosquitoes in other countries are annoying, but not necessarily deadly.

With that said, in the... 5 weeks? I've been in Australia, I've had at least three new bites a day. I haven't posted about them because I'm trying not to think about them because they're driving me completely batshit. And if this kind of thing actually happened and became marketable, it isn't poor tribes in Africa that would be getting them. They'd be mass-produced and marketed, and suddenly it's not the malaria-mosquitoes in trouble of extinction, but the European and American mosquitoes that people can afford to live with but don't want to deal with the annoyances.

And I know this, because if a WMD (lulz) existed a few weeks ago, I would have bought one for my room without thinking twice.

Science is awesome, but sometimes it scares the crap out of me how hard it is to think past the awesome.
20th-Mar-2009 09:03 am (UTC)
The funding for this project came exclusively from a charitable foudation commited to fighting malaria. I'm sure it will be marketed to Western areas as well, but I like to think it'll be used for its original purpose, too.
20th-Mar-2009 11:07 am (UTC)
Okay, awesome. Though the problem remains bringing an entire species of insect to extinction because they happen to bug us. Even the malaria-infected ones... I'm distinctly unsettled by the idea of playing god knowingly and specifically with the existence of species.
20th-Mar-2009 11:21 am (UTC)
Oh no, me too. But I support the extinction of Plasmodium, and I think malaria is a big enough humanitarian and economic problem to warrent
reduction of mosquito populations as vector control, especially given that no other species appear to rely on them.

I don't take the concept lightly, and I'd rather attack the protist directly rather than the insect vector. Extinction is a massive thing - and probably not possible, but if it's reduced down to millions of human lives versus a species that plays such a minor role in sustaining the ecosystem.

I'm not happy about it, but.
20th-Mar-2009 11:29 am (UTC)
That's the thing, though. We can say that the species plays a minor role in the ecosystem, but we say that because they've always been there and we don't think there would be any change, because we think we know everything there is to know about how that species operates.

What if we don't? What if they're a major part in sustaining the ecosystem? What if some inconsequential thing that they do, which has never been completely explained and so has seemed inconsequential, is actually completely essential to the ecosystem? We don't know, and we won't until we kill them off and have to deal with the possible problems that arise.

And I honestly can't see someone starting with the idea of "we're going to reduce this population" of a species that they find annoying and inconsequential and not taking it to straight extinction, just for the sake of convenience.

I just can't see it as anything but playing god, something you'd read in a sci-fi novel and shake your head at and sigh and worry about the future.
20th-Mar-2009 11:49 am (UTC)
This is why there's research and investigations and why we're trying to find out. Because we haven't yet got a way of attacking Plasmodium directly and because people are suffering with this disease. Millions of people are suffering. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying on an annual basis. And I think that justifies vector control.
20th-Mar-2009 11:52 am (UTC)
As awful as the reality of it is, the fact is we're still basically saying "the lives of humans are infinitely more worthwhile than the lives of this other species." Mosquitoes might not be on any endangered list and no one's petitioning for their rights, but the fact remains that even the idea of this is insisting that humans above all other life on earth have a greater right to live.

And that bothers me something terrible.
20th-Mar-2009 11:55 am (UTC)
That's what it boils down to, yes. And it's good that it bothers you. But I still fall down on that side. I'm a Buddhist and a deep ecologist, and I would still kill a spider to save the life of a human.
20th-Mar-2009 12:04 pm (UTC)
But if the spider is in its native habitat and the human blundered in and was bitten by accident (because that spider probably didn't bite to eat it), is it right to kill the spider?

I'm not saying I wouldn't kill the spider, too, because it would be an emotionally charged situation and the human has a face and a desire to live that we can relate to, whereas the spider is an it, a thing, and a creepy thing to boot. But when it comes down to it, the spider didn't go into the human's space, the human walked into it's.

And, as weaverandom just commented as I related some of this to her (roughly quoted), there's an unmeasurable difference between killing a single spider that's bitten a human and wiping out an entire species that isn't even instinctively passing on the disease people want to get rid of it for.
20th-Mar-2009 12:13 pm (UTC)
The biggest malaria problem is in Sub-Saharan Africa. We've been there for as long as we've existed as a habitat. If we had a native habitat, that would be it.

The difference is one of scale, not one of intent. I didn't specify venom: I just meant that between a spider's life and a human's, I would choose human. And if we can save millions human lives by reducing mosquito population, I choose human.

I don't advocate extinction, and I don't believe it's necessary. I'm hopeful we'll develop a vaccine, I think we might be able to dissociate the parasite from the host and wipe out the disease before we've done irreparable damage to the insect population. In the meantime, though, vector control is an important part of fighting that disease and species-specific control is the most ecologically soud way of perpetrating that.

I'm absolutely not trying to convince you, here. I have a lot of sympathy for where you're coming from.

But I still choose humanity.
21st-Mar-2009 05:54 pm (UTC)
1. The gadget is a means of *control*, not *eradication*. It targets mozzies which are imminently dangerous, ie those behaving highly suspiciously (buzzing around your bedroom), not any old mozzie in general. The beauty of it is is that it can potentially kill any which enter your space, but leave alone those that don't. In the end, it might even cause the development of an insect with a distaste for biting humans.
2. Nature wants you dead. It operates on the principle that ANY collections of genes has a GREATER right to live than any other. The resultant conflict drives evolution. It's OK to believe you have a greater right to live than the malaria vector, but remember that it's allowed to believe the opposite. You have the right to defend yourself and your genes. If the plasmodium decided to leave us alone, then I'd return the favour. Until then, it had better watch out!

21st-Mar-2009 10:31 am (UTC)
We've chosen to wipe out smallpox. We've chosen to (try) and wipe out polio. I don't think this is any different. The fact that we can't go after Plasmodium but can go after Anopheles (not all of which transmit malaria effectively - even within the A. gambiae species complex= and therefore aren't targets).

I don't think this will end up driving it to extinction. They'd be looking at controlling the species in particular areas. DDT didn't wipe out the species, even though they tried. It controlled the population, and I don't think that this (or any of the other methods) will do anything other than that.
21st-Mar-2009 10:58 am (UTC)
Dave, I told you not to.
21st-Mar-2009 11:19 am (UTC)
Sorry. I'll try not to do it again.
21st-Mar-2009 09:43 am (UTC)
Penicillin is an antibiotic. Quinine was the historically important malarial treatment. Incidentally malaria was common in the UK- especially East Anglia.
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