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How cellphones might help researchers battle mosquito-spread disease

paula-lavalle-88527In many regions, mosquitos are basically flying disease distributors. Bed nets and pharmaceuticals save lives, but to support additional advances — from environmental controls such as removing breeding habitat to working with locals to avoid mosquito-dense areas — researchers need to know what types of mosquitos frequent particular places at particular times.

That's no easy task. But it's one that Stanford graduate student Haripriya Mukundarajan and her mentor, Manu Prakash, PhD, a frugal science specialist, think they be able to tackle — using cellphones. "We realized that people everywhere are walking around with mosquito detectors in their pockets," Mukundarajan told science writer Ed Yong. His piece in The Atlantic explains:

A mosquito’s buzz reveals not only its presence, but also its identity. Each species seems to hum at its own distinctive pitch, and Mukundarajan and Prakash have shown that cellphone recordings are good enough to classify these insects. They’ve essentially created Shazam for mosquitoes. 'I tell people there are 3,500 species of mosquitoes and they laugh,' says Prakash. 'To them, it’s just a mosquito. We need to change that if we’re to fight these diseases properly.'

Not surprisingly, challenges remain. A few species sound quite similar, so researchers would need information on the location and time of day to help them decipher the buzzer's identity. The phone has to be close, a mere 5 centimeters from the insect. Researchers also need to figure out how to pick out several mosquitoes from one recording. And what if a truck drives by in the background?

Nonetheless, the team is optimistic. Prakash trained a group of volunteers in Madagascar to make recordings and it worked well. "I gave them half-an-hour of training and left them on their own. Which is the point: Anyone should be able to do this," he said.

If Mukundarajan and Prakash are successful, the very communities affected by mosquito-borne diseases can take the lead in fighting those pesky, flying vectors.

Previously: A closer look at the work of "genius award" winner Manu Prakash, Manu under the microscope and Keeping mosquitoes in check to prevent widespread disease
Photo by Paula Lavalle

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