Bill Gates drops $1m on laser-based malaria fighter
Mosquitoes repelled by 'light wall'
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $1m grant to an astrophysicist developing a laser-based solution to a decidedly terrestrial problem: malaria-spreading mosquitoes.
"I wanted to apply my astrophysics, optics, laser expertise towards some humanitarian goal that can help people," says Columbia University associate professor Szabolcs Márka in video outlining his laser "light wall".
"I had this idea that maybe that optics and light can repell or affect insects, and maybe that can be used to eradicate malaria."
Márka – whose day job involves investigating what happens when two black holes merge – had the bright idea several years back that light could be used to confuse mosquitoes by interfering with their sensory systems.
Working with his wife ZsuZsa Márka and colleague Imre Bartos, he refined his approach to creating a laser-produced barrier – a light wall.
Exactly how the 'light wall' works isn't known – but mosquitoes won't cross it
"We stumbled on this," Márka said in a Columbia Technology Ventures discussion of his work. "If you have an invisible wall of light, how will mosquitoes and fruit flies react? They do walk or fly into it. Then they turn back. They don't want to cross it."
The Gates Foundation awarded $100,000 to Márka and his team in 2008. The light wall work apparently has impressed the Foundation mightily, as it has now added another $1m to support the work, making the mosquito repellant idea only one of five follow-up grants in in the Foundation's Grand Challenges program.
The eradication of malaria is a primary goal of the Gates Foundation. As their website notes, nearly one million people a year die of the disease – 90 per cent of them in Africa – and 85 per cent of the victims are children under five years of age.
Márka's method shows promise – a sufficiently large array, for example, could cost-effectively protect a large area, or a conical light wall could protect a family's shared sleeping area.
But exactly why the light wall works, Márka doesn't know.
"The mosquitoes are probably scared," Márka explains – though he doesn't expand on the psychological mechanism of fear in a being as rudimentary as the malaria-carrying Anopheles gambiae. "They could go through the light barrier without getting hurt, but they don't," he says.
He also seems to have more sympathy for mosquitoes than the little blood-suckers have for their prey. "That’s the beauty of it because you don't have to necessarily kill them," he says. "You just make them go away." ®
Half the problem
One of the big reasons that particular area of the globe is mostly fallow is that there are simply too many sick folks to work it. One of the fundamental problems is that lifespans are so short they tend to do their damnedest to produce as large a family as possible so that maybe some will survive long enough to take care of any who don't die before they turn 40 and have a sufficient number of non-sick people to keep it all working.
Certainly rapid changes make things worse and oddly it is one of the downsides of things like DDT, in that it makes the problem go away for a bit and there is the expected population boom but then the downsides are realized and the plug gets pulled spilling it all backward again. Solving the malaria and clean water problems would undoubtedly produce an immediate increase in population but if sustainable it would quickly shift and birth rates would likely drop to levels more typical of western society as people don't need replacing quite so frequently.
Naturally there will be a substantial need for education in order to kill off the specters of the past but those specters still need to be killed off first. The ideal situation produces outcomes where major areas are self sustaining and the breed now, breed often tradition tapers off. The skeleton in the closet or unseen balance point is that developed nations also need to stop kidding themselves and they need to dump the agricultural subsidies, which are funded by taxpayers, that make food in developing nations cost less to import than it does to grow while artificially making sugar (in the US anyway) more expensive than corn syrup. Granted it has the benefit of pushing down the price of rum... but that gets taxed away by the BATFE; [insert alcohol, smoke shop, firearms & explosives joke here].
Controversial thought....No! Extremely stupid thought... most definitely!
Natural selection wasn't good enough while we were improving the quality of life for the richer Western society, but find a way to help fight malaria which is more likely to affect the poorer nations and we are interfering with natural selection. Get a grip.
.....or perhaps it's simply because it's Bill Gates.
Why don't you stop messing with natural selection
I guess you are gonna stop messing with natural selection and gonna go back to you self-sustaining farm with patch wheat as soon as you are done, making stupid ignorant comments on the interwebs he.