Using technology to breed, release more mozzies for research

A new drive by NEA, start-up Orinno and Verily will make the counting, sorting and releasing of mosquitoes more efficient.
A new drive by NEA, start-up Orinno and Verily will make the counting, sorting and releasing of mosquitoes more efficient.ST FILE PHOTO

Cutting-edge technology will be employed to mass-produce mosquitoes to make it easier for scientists to conduct research into ways to control dengue and other diseases.

The boffins need male mozzies which do not feed on human blood, so they can infect them with the Wolbachia bacteria.

These males are released and when they mate with females, the eggs do not hatch, which in turn reduces the number of disease-carrying mozzies. The Wolbachia study started in 2016 and was expanded in April this year with mosquitoes being released on higher floors in HDB blocks more frequently.

The limiting factor has been getting enough males. But a new collaboration among the National Environment Agency (NEA), local start-up Orinno Technology and Verily, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet, is making the process more efficient.

It is now tedious to produce mosquitoes on a large scale. Researchers have to count batches of larvae by hand and manually sort out males from the larger females, said Associate Professor Ng Lee Ching from the NEA's Environmental Health Institute. They would then have to manually release the mosquitoes at field testing sites.

Prof Ng added that the process is labour-intensive and subject to human error. "If you want good quality mosquitoes, you must have very systematic production."

The new initiative harnesses a range of gadgets to inject more efficiency into the laborious process.

 
 

Orinno's technology can count 4,000 mosquito larvae in three minutes, instead of the two hours a human would take.

Verily's automated mosquito sex-sorter is hundreds of times more accurate than a human, said Mr Nigel Snoad, product manager of the firm's Debug Project, which uses technology to improve the mosquito-rearing process.

Verily's automated cart is also designed to disperse Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes in a controlled manner while navigating HDB corridors. The cart will be tested in Tampines West later this month in a trial that will end in January.

The initiative was announced at the Singapore International Dengue Workshop, which started yesterday and ends next week.

NEA deputy chief executive Khoo Seow Poh said at the event: "Dengue has posed an enormous health and economic burden on many countries where resources and expertise are limited... This situation underscores the need for greater inter-sectoral collaboration to maximise the resources we have, to build more effective dengue control programmes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2018, with the headline 'Using technology to breed, release more mozzies for research'. Print Edition | Subscribe