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back to article Bill Gates drops $1m on laser-based malaria fighter

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 …

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Joke

Hopefully it'll work with some pesky humans as well ?

"That’s the beauty of it because you don't have to necessarily kill them," he says. "You just make them go away."

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Short Sighted

Here's a controversial thought: Bill and Melinda Gates are putting many lives at risk by messing with natural selection.

The world just passed 7B people and the growth rate isn't slowing. How many people can the planet sustain? What happens when we reach that threshold? Shouldn't we understand the answers to these questions before we reach that point?

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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].

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FAIL

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.

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Facepalm

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.

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Only the Gates?? Why aren't you putting yourself through natural selection?

You should head straight down there, right in the middle of the Congo, and let's see who natural selection takes out first.

Then we can send the rest of your kin.. if you don't survive, your genes aren't good enough innit?

Self centred %%$%!£$£

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Paris Hilton

Natural Selection?

Great idea - what's the best way to get a decent-sized maleria-carrying mosquito community going in the US?

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Why dont you go to a maleria country without medication and lets see how well you do.

Idiot

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Nev
FAIL

@McBeese

Controversial thought, or just utter bollocks?

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Controversial Idea

Hey that's a great idea! Maybe to stop interfering with natural selection we should just shut down the hospitals in the Western world too! It'd save a FORTUNE on healthcare spending! My taxes would go right down!

Of course my son could get sick and die but hey, there's enough people in the world already, right?

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I have to agree with you.

So far, nobody has figured out what the implications will be when laser-tolerant mosquitoes evolve (and they will!) - while, in the mean time, everyone has discarded their mosquito netting in favour of these new-fangled laser walls.

Nature has a funny way of biting us in the ass when we least expect it.

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Ru
FAIL

"nobody has figured out what the implications will be"

What implications? People won't stop using mosquito nets overnight... the laser-based devices will be significantly more expensive, and significantly less reliable. I can see practical uses in fitting them to windows and doors in public buildings, eg. hospitals.

Worst case scenario? We're back to where we were before. Oh noes.

There's significantly higher risk in developing populations of insecticide resistant mosquito populations, as there's a clear advantage for mozzies who live to breeding age. There's no particular advantage to mosquitos who can pass through a laser barrier, except a slightly larger food source.

Your comment is as short sighted and ill-informed as the 'natural selection' guy. Presumably he's all in favour of cancelling all vaccination programs across the world and reintroducing smallpox, right? That would be *natural*.

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Stop

population control

good point you make, but there is a strong correlation between mortality and birthrate. High mortality = high birthrate.

In the west, where we have very low infant mortality, the birthrate barely exceeds the deathrate, in fact we have an ageing population i.e. no growth.

In 'developing' countries, they need to have many more kids in order to have a chance of having someone to look after them in old age: so they have many more children than we do.

Saving lives lowers population growth. Counterintuitive, but true.

http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?v=25

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@McDeese

We won't know what will happen when we reach the "threshold" until we reach it. So far it is nowhere in sight and your implied suggestions that we should let as many people as possible to suffer and die prematurely in order to delay reaching some hypothetical "barrier" is absurd. What next - ban pharmacies and execute all medical doctors?

To put things in perspective (according to BBC) if you put all 7 billion in a city with population density of Paris they will all fit on the territory of France. So it's a long, long way to tipping barrier...

Of course, if you want to start fighting overpopulation - go ahead, make the first step. The Darwin Award awaits. Just don't do it at the expense of the others.

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Well, if mankind was not so obsessed with expanding horizontally, but insteaded went with vertically, the planet could easily substain 20x's the population density with proper management.

Its just a matter of having the proper type of buildings constructed in a verticle format in non-food growing areas, using other non-food growing areas for power production, then using areas that are viable for food growth for actually growing nothing but food for well, food growth, and it would be viable.

Instead we have large chunks of horizontal areas in areas that food could be grown covered by homes and lawns while other areas where we could have vertical homes and power production are just lying useless because joe blow wants to own a couple hundred acres of land for himself.

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Cost effective?

Sure, do some experimenting but it is going to be a long time before laser light walls are going to be more cost effective and practical than current technology. The most likely outcome is that it never will and this idea will end up on the scrap heap.

Right now the humble mosquito net works pretty well and are very affordable. If they break (ie get torn) they can be patched up by unskilled people and don't need a friggin laser technician. They don't need power. You don't need safety goggles to prevent your eyes being burned out.

Western do-gooders really need to get some time on the ground in the third world to figure out what can and can't work.

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Agreed

It's like a mosquito net, but the batteries run out.

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It has a market, just not the humanitarian one....

Could be useful for hotels etc - keep those pesky bugs out of lobbies and restaurants.

But for villager-in-mud-hut? Nah.

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Go

Cost Effective?

Many millions have been spent investigating how to disrupt the mosquito's other senses such as as smell but little to none on the effect of light. The grant, if you read the article from the link, is to investigate this aspect more thoroughly. This may not result in a working light barrier but I would suggest that any advancement in knowledge in this area is worthwhile and if Bill Gates want to spend a tiny proportion of the money he has donated to his foundation on it then good on him.

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Meh

You do have to wonder how many mosquito nets $1M would buy. That said, the intent seems to be that the laser wall could scale up to protect hundreds of people. What if it could be mounted on the roof of a hospital to protect the whole building? Or create a partial wall directly between a town and a known mosquito hotspot?

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Mushroom

So get some time on the ground

Is it your implicit assumption that it is EITHER mosquito nets OR non-lethal light beam?

Both can co-exist.

Looks like I'm the first to mention this

http://www.ted.com/talks/nathan_myhrvold_could_this_laser_zap_malaria.html

Oh no! A third option! I only do binary!

What about impregnated versus unimpregnated mosquito nets?

Oh God! A fourth option! My brain's exploding!

I won't mention the recent release of sterile male mosquitos in a secret experiment. Or the research into using certain bacteria that attack the malarial parasite inside the mosquito.

How about the problems in getting people to maintain their nets? They don't believe that mosquitos transmit malaria. They think everything causes malaria.

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Go

Maybe if it scaled

If you stuck one on a pole you might be able to protect a large area like a villiage. If it works on mosquitos it might work on other pest insects. A laser wall to protect crops would certainly be better than the current chemical pesticides assuming it worked.

I guess it depends how intense the light has to be to work. This is future science not practical deployable technologies to solve problems in the next few year. It's certainly a lot more applicable than theorising about smashing black holes together.

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That's right. Those kids aren't dying because they don't have frickin' lasers, it's because they can't afford plain old mosquito nets, cheap though they are.

About the only realistic way this tech will ever reach its intended target, is by donating it to orphanages and such where it might be used to cover one large space with many beds. Maybe.

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I have no problem at all with dropping $1M on research.

What I really have a problem with is the developer making over ambitious claims that using lasers will be cost effective.

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Why not use a low-power (10W) CO2 laser? The mozzies definitely won't cross that.

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Not twice, for sure...

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Flame

Fry the suckers!!!

I really hate mozzies......

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FAIL

Malaria Eradication Overshadowed by Blinding Epidemic

I can see the headlines now...

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I wonder if they'd adapt

I imagine that eventually the mosquitos will adapt or grow comfortable with the light wall and no longer fear walking or flying through it.

Spend the 1m on mosquito nets and erect them around whole villages in Africa.

Smart doesn't necessarily mean better.

I like that Gates is continuing to share some of his wealth to help the world :)

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Maybe not

As I understand the principle of selection, a population eventually adapts because something in the environment favours some individuals over others - so drug resistance etc favours a group that survives to reproduce. It's not necessarily the case that those individuals are 'better'; it may well be that they are in some respects less well adapted than the general population. The introduction of new factors to the environment (DDT, anybody?) may shift that balance.

In this case, the laser wall doesn't (appear to) favour select parts of the population - it doesn't kill big chunks of the population, so no selection pressure per se. In that respect it's exactly like the mosquito nets, and I'm pretty sure we don't yet have mosquitos that have worked out how to munch through the nets :)

I rather agree with other comments that this is somewhat OTT as a day-to-day solution; nets are generally pretty effective and easily maintained. It strikes me, though, that if the laser trick can be made to work over a large area then you potentially have a useful emergency response tool.

Without checking, I'm guessing that the amount of power required is pretty low (the mossies presumably are responding to the presence of the light rather than its intesity), so the laser rigs could be be solar powered - think about where malaria is prevalent -, would be mostly or wholly solid state (so robust) and conceivably quite compact. The last point being important when you're trying to decide whether to load your cargo plane with food, medical supplies or nets...

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Silver badge

Natural selection pressures aren't just about not being killed.

This could potentially favour some natural variation in the mosquito population. If there were a mutation that made individual mozzies less wary of the 'light wall' and pass through, they would have access to food / breeding areas denied to the rest of their population. This is just as valid a selection pressure as, say, faster zebras living long enough to breed because they haven't been eaten by lions.

Indeed, an analogous situation has already been observed: Individual instances of the same virus number in the millions. Within this 'population' is a fair bit of variation through mutation. Some of these mutations, by chance, allow them to breach barriers in the host body. Those viruses that can pass through said barrier (or circumvent a defence of another kind) will then quickly get reproduced on the other side.

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Angel

"I like that Gates is continuing to share some of his wealth to help the world :)" - Indeed

Have you seen how much money he has put in? And how much the Foundation has got to spend after Warren Buffet got involved?

Gates doesn't get enough credit for this...

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Anonymous Coward

@I love those puppies

I see some twat has voted you down for saying that a man who gives more to the international fight on Malaria than all governments put together, needs more recognition.

I am simply staggered that people go so far to pain Bill Gates as evil, based on not really liking some software that his company wrote.

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WTF?

@ AC @ I love those puppies

AC Wrote :- "I see some twat has voted you [I love those puppies] down for saying that a man who gives [so much] to the .. fight on Malaria... needs more recognition."

Well I just down-voted him too, for good measure. Gates needs more recognition like Eskimos need more snow; his name is everywhere.

Anyway, WTF else would a man do with so much money that it would be physically impossible to spend it all on himself?

Did you ever read the Bible story of the Widows's Mite? Unless and until Gates gives so much to charity that he is left with no more in the bank than the average American, I cannot see that we need to admire him.

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Anonymous Coward

I preferred his old system

His previous system used lasers to shoot down the mosquitoes.

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Happy

Dammit

I was wondering that too...

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Joke

The final problem is that...

Eventually when the mosquitoes get low enough in population, some crazed environmentalist will want them placed on the endangered species list.

I'm surprised that it hasn't happened to the small pox virus already.

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@Herby

"I'm surprised that it hasn't happened to the small pox virus already."

How dare you refer to our esteemed bankers in that way? They are most definitely not small.

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Facepalm

You been watching Lilo and Stitch re-runs?

Just stop calling Pleakley crazed, OK?

Anyway, newsflash: smallpox was eradicated in 1979 (apart from the WHO reference labs in the USA and Russia, and the lost samples at the bottom of old research freezers)

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Joke

Unrelated, but funny.

Before I read the article, I thought the system was going to be a system for tracking and burning the bugs with laser beams. Reminded me of a spoof commercial out of "Not Necessarily The News" for "Fly Wars" that supposedly did just that. Admitted it was a jab at the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars"), but it was still funny ("Look for Luke Flyswatter on the label!").

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Power?

To my understanding these are the same parts of the world that have either no or no reliable electrical sources. A laser wall without power is not much point.

The solution to the African disease problems lies in the reduction of corruption and the increase of individual wealth. The technology is interesting but only a temporary patch to a permanent solution.

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Welcome addition

I hope they get somewhere with this new tech., I imagined this device will be powered by solar source which is recharged during the day. Using the net & laser together will be a welcome relief.

However, I'm sure these little pesky insects will get wise to the laser & adapt as they have always adapted to new fights against them. :-(

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Mushroom

"They could go through the light barrier without getting hurt, but they don't,"

Then MORE POWWWWWEEEERRRRRRR is needed......

I want em vapourised in front of my eyes..

Hours of fun for the whole family....

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Joke

They could go through the light barrier without getting hurt, but they don't

Ye canna change the laws of physics Jim, mossies are too small, they dinnna have a warp core

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Well, that's disappointing...

I read about mozzies and lasers in the title - i was expecting tiny laser dogfights with locusts or ladybugs!

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There's nothing more dangerous then a wounded mosquito

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKlkD-D20OI

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Nev
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Loving the comments...

...from people who don't suffer from a big Mosquito problem.

I'd love one of these puppies!

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Mushroom

Reminds me of the Monty Python approach to mosquito hunting

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKlkD-D20OI

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