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From Most Dangerous Animal on the Planet to Early Warning System

“The mosquito is the most dangerous animal on the planet.” So says Ethan Jackson, lead scientist at Microsoft Research and collaborator on Project Premonition, a system that has the potential to detect infectious disease outbreaks before they become widespread, a breakthrough that could ultimately help to prevent major health disasters around the world.

While Jackson’s statement might sound a little over the top to those whose experience with the annoying flying insects is limited to swatting them away at weekend barbeques, the reality is that the mosquito is a major carrier of pathogens, spreading diseases such as dengue fever, avian flu, West Nile virus and yellow fever, not to mention malaria, a parasite that kills more than half a million people per year worldwide, mainly children under five in Africa. And while the mosquito’s ability to rapidly spread disease makes them especially dangerous, it also makes them, as Jackson says, “nature’s drones,” that can provide scientists with important indicators of a disease on the move.

“The ability to predict an epidemic would be huge,” said Douglas Norris, a professor in the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who is collaborating on the project.

That’s a significant improvement over the current system. Usually, health officials only find out about an outbreak once people are already getting sick, meaning that prevention and treatment measures may not be up and running for as long as a couple of months after a disease has begun spreading, said James Pipas, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Pittsburgh who also is working on Project Premonition.

“If you know they’re coming, you can prepare your response ahead of time,” he said.

In order to gather enough mosquitos to serve as an epidemic “early warning system,” the researchers are designing a system that combines a redesigned mosquito trap that not only uses less energy than conventional traps—in use since the 50’s and 60’s—but also sorts the mosquitoes from other bugs lured to the trap and preserves them for later analysis. The research team then uses drones to semi-autonomously fly the traps into and out of remote areas, saving researchers countless hours of trekking through hard-to-navigate (and potentially dangerous) environments.

“The ability to predict an epidemic would be huge.”

Douglas Norris, PhD, MS, Professor, W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology

Once the mosquitoes have been collected, the next challenge is to analyze them for microbes and viruses that could pose a threat to humans. Using the latest developments in molecular biology and genetic sequencing, the Project Premonition researchers can identify multiple viruses, even viruses that haven’t been discovered yet. The data is then uploaded into a cloud-based database where algorithms can evaluate which of the viruses may be a danger to humans and the animals they rely on.

While Project Premonition is in its early stages, completing some of the first field tests in Grenada this past year, the researchers expect that as the project progresses it will lead to immediate benefits through a constant stream of innovations in several key fields.