Airborne Bites

Art Traps, Laser Beams & DNA
in the War Against Mosquitoes

Except for a few days, winter has been mild in the Eastern Seaboard so far. That’s no excuse not to envy those living in warmer weather.
Which brings us to today’s subject: mosquitoes. Aha! Feel the sting? That’s what you get for daring to wear shorts in November.
We all know the multitude of miserable infectious diseases they can carry, but instead of dwelling on demonizing them, let’s just skip to the very new ways being devised to annihilate them, shall we?
It turns out that this is prime season both for those mosquito-infested regions of the globe, and the business of trying to trap and eliminate them for good.
Laser barriers, mutant armies, genetically-altered species, the brave new world of high-tech weapons enlisted to get rid of the airborne pests may be powerful and effective but is also as sure as hell scary.
MOSQUITOES MUST DIE
American artist Dennis Ashbaugh has been one of the first to use patterns of DNA markings in his paintings, large-scale canvas of networks and viruses, both biological and computer based.

It seems he’s also in a personal campaign against mosquitoes. As he says, ‘after a torturous sleepless night of scratching, (…) I started to think, “How can I kill these things?”’
His answer was to develop a series of home-made, elaborate traps designed, he assure us, to kill “these hideous bastards.”
No need to share his drive to squash this 30-million old species out of the planet to appreciate the, well, artistry of his traps. Matches, twigs, electrified chords, one would be surprised by the variety of his arsenal of components.
Whether their “organic” appearance attract the smart but slow moving bugs, is what heated arguments may be all about. They are, however, enough to attract the attention of another pesky species: humans.

AN INFRARED LIGHT RAY
A practical application of sorts of all those laser swords ‘the force’ willed to defeat Darth Vader. That’s how one can describe the mosquito-repellent laser beam, designed to ‘discourage’ them from coming after the warm juices of your body.
Columbia University physicist Szabolcs Márka developed a way to create an invisible infrared light barrier, targeting their sensory systems, so they get confused (or permanently damaged) and turn away from the heat.
It’s a novel way to combat mosquito infestations, as previous studies have focused primarily on their olfactory or chemical sensors. Even if it has kinks to work out, and if sci-fi movies are any indication, we’re well on our way to see it working on our lifetime.
And thank goodness, no one will need to have ‘the force’ within, in order to ward off a malaria-carrying mosquito from coming for a little sip.
MUTANT ARMIES IN BRAZIL
In the scorched-earth battered region of Juazeiro, in the Brazilian northeast, a high-tech experiment is being conducted that may represent real change to the impoverished communities living there.
No, not ultra-modern sewage systems, or new sources of potable water, or even self-sustained projects to employ the working-age generations that often are trapped in brutal or slave-like work conditions.
It’s an experiment targeting mosquitoes and caterpillars, two plagues that affect the few food crops of the region, so important for Brazil’s trade balance and political growth.
But even that the benefits to the locals are indirect, the research developed by a U.K. biotechnology company will have far reaching repercussions on their quality of life.
The complex technique, which has already been successfully applied to other species, involves a fluorescent genetic marker and a set of procedures that ultimately disrupts the development of offspring.
The research has already been expanded to develop genetic alternatives to target malaria, dengue and other mosquito-carrying infectious diseases.
Eventually, crops free of mosquito and caterpillars may generate jobs for local, impoverished communities in Brazil. Possibly even better wages. But that’s just us saying, so please, don’t quote us on that.
MANUFACTURING LETHAL MALES
As most matriarch-led societies, females are the ones doing the biting. Males are mere soldiers of reproduction in this war. Such a built-in role division makes them more vulnerable to genetic manipulation. That’s just the way it is.
But critics of such a widespread DNA experiment are not completely sold into it, and fear that sometime down the road, it may turn against us in one way or another. The parallels with the fight against genetically-modified crops are evident.
At issue is the possibility of mosquitoes developing resistance to the lethal gene. And that females may be released inadvertently, since the sorting is done by hand. Even a small percentage of females could lead to an increase in disease spread.
A possible solution to render females unable to fly is already in the works by a team of molecular biologists. Then again, another step further into an even deeper realm of genetic manipulation makes it harder to predict its possible impact on the environment and the natural balance of the species.
There’s a lot hanging around the issue, and not just as a matter of public health. The food industry is eager to try newer and cheaper ways to optimize its production values and profitability. Specially now, what with seven billion hungry stomachs walking around.
The industry may expect less opposition to its pest control for crops research than what it faced with gen-alt foods. If not for anything else, then because bugs are still not part of the diet of most societies, despite being rich sources of protein (and their natural crunchiness).

WHAT NO TRAP CAN CATCH
But the underlying reality is far more reaching. It’s about the overuse of mono-cultures which tends to disturb the ecology of entire regions, by keeping off a greater variety of predators, in the case of bugs, bird species, that would naturally control their overpopulation.
That is true for modern farms, which need to operate in large scale and orient their food production to exports, not to local consumption. In cities, the situation is different but no less dramatic.
The increased proliferation of mosquitoes in urban settings can be attributed to the uneven way cities grow and develop, along with an even greater absence of natural predators to keep them in check.
At the end of the day, when it comes to eradicating mosquitoes and other disease-carrying bugs, it may not all be about building the perfect trap.
As we gain access to highly sophisticated and effective ways of keeping nature at bay, it’s always wise to have in mind that this is a game of give and take, not only taking. We may be able to divert a mighty river and build higher levees, so we can extend our presence in the land underneath it.
But there will be always times when that body of water, or the swarm of bugs for that matter, will come to reoccupy their original habitat. Once that happens, we’ll be already behind the curve on preventing disaster and disease and widespread misery.
So, you can trap them, zap them, catch them, poison them, altered them, even making them kill each other for you. But one day, you’re bound to run out of bullets.
That’s when you may resort to what humans have been doing for thousands of years, whenever attacked by a mosquito: squash it and be done with it.

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