MARCH 14, 2009
Rocket Scientists Shoot Down Mosquitoes With Lasers
Humans, Butterflies Remain Unharmed; The 'Star Wars' Connection
By ROBERT A. GUTH
BELLEVUE, Wash. -- A quarter-century ago, American rocket scientists
proposed the "Star Wars" defense system to knock Soviet missiles from the
skies with laser beams. Some of the same scientists are now aiming their
lasers at another airborne threat: the mosquito.
In a lab in this Seattle suburb, researchers in long white coats recently
stood watching a small glass box of bugs. Every few seconds, a contraption
100 feet away shot a beam that hit the buzzing mosquitoes, one by one, with
a spot of red light.
The insects survived this particular test, which used a non-lethal laser.
But if these researchers have their way, the Cold War missile-defense
strategy will be reborn as a WMD: Weapon of Mosquito Destruction.
"We'd be delighted if we destabilize the human-mosquito balance of power,"
says Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist who once worked at the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, the birthplace of some of the deadliest
weapons known to man. More recently he worked on the mosquito laser, built
from parts bought on eBay.
The scientists' actual target is malaria, which is caused by a parasite
transmitted when certain mosquitoes bite people. Ended in the U.S. decades
ago, malaria remains a major global public-health threat, killing about 1
million people annually.
Efforts to eradicate the disease languished for years until recently.
Big-money donors like Bill Gates, the United Nations, the U.K. and
non-profit such as Malaria No More re-launched the war on malaria, devoting
billions of dollars to vaccines, methods of prevention and novel ways to
"You can say we are very lucky -- the right place at the right time," says
astrophysicist Szabolcs Mrka, a Columbia University specialist in black
holes. He has a grant to develop a "mosquito flashlight" designed to knock
out the bugs' eye-like sensors.
Scientists around the world are testing ways of thwarting mosquitoes with
microwaves, rancid odors, poisoned *** and other weapons that disrupt the
sense of sight, smell and heat mosquitoes use to find their prey.
There's work on genetically altering a bacterium to infect and kill a
mosquito, and a project to build a malaria-free mosquito genetically
enhanced to overtake the natural kind.
There's also a researcher in Japan who thinks mosquitoes can be a force for
good. He is working on transforming them into "flying syringes" that deliver
vaccines with every bite.
The mosquito laser is the brainchild of Lowell Wood, an astrophysicist who
worked with Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and architect of the
original plan to use lasers to shield America from the rain of Soviet
President Ronald Reagan embraced the idea in the 1980s, dubbing it the
Strategic Defense Initiative.
Senator Edward Kennedy mocked it as "Star Wars." Eventually it became a
footnote in history.
Its rebirth as a bug killer came thanks to Nathan Myhrvold, a former
Microsoft Corp. executive who now runs Intellectual Ventures LLC., a company
that collects patents and funds inventions. His old boss, Mr. Gates, had
asked him to explore new ways of combating malaria. At a brainstorming
session in 2007, Dr. Wood, the Star Wars architect, suggested using lasers
Soon Dr. Wood, Dr. Kare and another Star Wars scientist teamed with an
entomologist with a Ph.D in mosquito behavior and other experts. They killed
their first mosquito with a hand-held laser in early 2008.
"We like to think back then we made some contribution to the ending of the
Cold War" with the Star Wars program, Dr. Kare says. "Now we're just trying
to make a dent in a war that's actually gone on a lot longer and claimed a
lot more lives."
The scientists envision their technology might one day be used to draw a
laser barrier around a house or village that could kill or blind the bugs.
Or, laser-equipped drone aircraft could track bugs by radar, sweeping the
sky with death-dealing photons.
They now face one big challenge: deciding how strong to make the weapon. The
laser has to be weak enough to not harm humans and smart enough to avoid
hitting useful bugs. "You could kill billions of mosquitoes a night, and you
could do so without harming butterflies," says Mr. Myhrvold.
Demonstrating the technology recently, Dr. Kare, Mr. Myhrvold and other
researchers stood below a small shelf mounted on the wall about 10 feet off
the ground. On the shelf were five Maglite flashlights, a zoom lens from a
35mm camera, and the laser itself -- a little black box with an assortment
of small lenses and mirrors. On the floor below sat a Dell personal computer
that is the laser's brain.
The glass box of mosquitoes across the room is an old 10-gallon fish tank.
Each time a beam strikes a bug, the computer makes a gunshot sound to signal
a direct hit.
To locate individual mosquitoes, light from the flashlights hits the tank
across the room, creating tiny mosquito silhouettes on reflective material
behind it. The zoom lens picks up the shadows and feeds the data to the
computer, which controls the laser and fires it at the bug.
In a video, researchers showed what happens when they deploy deadly rays.
A mosquito hovers into view. Suddenly, it bursts into flame. A thin plume of
smoke rises as the mosquito falls. At the bottom of the screen, the carcass
There's ready supply of fresh recruits nearby, where an intern feeds a
saucer of goat *** to a colony of anopheles stephensi, one species of
mosquito that transmits malaria.
Not only can the laser target a mosquito, it can also tell a male from a
female based on wing-beat.
That's a crucial distinction, since only females feed on *** and thus
transmit disease. Males in the wild eat sugary plant nectar. (In the lab
they get raisins.)
"If you really were a purist, you could only kill the females, not the
males," Mr. Myhrvold says. But since they're mosquitoes, he says, he'll
probably "just slay them all."