Global Issues TEDTalks

5 talks about mosquitos—and how to stop their buzzing

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

The world’s most dangerous animal isn’t the lion, tiger or bear. It’s actually the mosquito.

“Mosquitos have killed more humans than any other creature in human history,” says Haydn Parry in today’s talk. “The mosquito has killed more humans than wars and plague.”

Every year, about a million and a half people succumb to malaria — even with technologies to prevent and treat the disease — while 50 to 100 million people a year are infected with dengue fever, a disease sometimes called “breakbone fever” that has grown 30 fold in the last half century. Spread by a species of mosquito from northern Africa — Aedes aegypti — the disease has skyrocketed because this mosquito and its eggs are so good at hitchhiking as human beings travel the world.

Traditionally, there have been two ways to control mosquitos in addition to nets and wearing covering clothing — larvicides, which kill mosquito eggs, and a variety of products designed to kill mosquitos as they fly. Both options are, however, difficult to deploy and can damage the environment, not to mention harm humans. Meanwhile, a single female mosquito can lay 500 eggs in her lifetime.

Parry’s company, Oxitec, has an idea to stop the rapid spread of dengue fever: genetically engineering male mosquitos to make their offspring unviable.

“There are two features of mosquito biology that really help us. Firstly, males don’t bite,” explains Parry. “And second — males are very, very good at finding females.  If there’s a male mosquito that you release and there is a female around, the male will find the female … If that male is carrying a gene that causes the death of the offspring, then the offspring don’t survive. Instead of having 500 mosquitos running around, you have none.”

Parry shares that small initial field trials of this method show that, in as short as four months, a mosquito population can be depleted by as much as 85%. If further research goes well, these altered mosquitos can be shipped, cheaply, around the world.

To hear more about this promising approach, watch Parry’s talk. Here, four more talks on mosquito madness.

Bill Gates: Mosquitos, malaria and education
In this classic talk from TED2009, Bill Gates points out that far more money is invested in baldness drugs than in drugs to prevent and treat malaria, which still has a tremendous footprint in poor countries. To underscore the problem, Gates releases seven (uninfected) mosquitos into the auditorium. His call: that we can’t take our eye off of this disease because, for every tool we’ve created to fight it, mosquitos have evolved to avoid it.


Nathan Myhrvold: Could this laser zap malaria?
Nathan Myhrvold encourages his fellow inventors to use their creativity to solve problems facing the world — like malaria. At TED2010, he shares the latest technology to fight mosquitos and stop the spread of the brutal disease — a machine that can literally shoot mosquitos out of the sky with lasers.

Bart Knols: Cheese, dogs and a pill to kill mosquitos and end malaria
Can limburger cheese help tame the mosquito population? Yes, says Bart Knols. His research has found that African malaria mosquitos are attracted to this cheese’s smell, possibly because it is similar to that of human feet, giving us an easy way to bait them. In this talk from TEDxMaastricht, Knols also shares two other ideas for reducing the number of cases of malaria, which kills a child every 30 seconds: using dogs to sniff out mosquito larvae and creating a pill to make us deadly to the blood-thirsty bugs.

John Wilbanks: Let’s pool our medical data
At one point in time, people thought that yellow fever was caused by dirty clothing. So how did we figure out that mosquitos were to blame? In this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, John Wilbanks shares the tale of Carlos Finlay who, in the late 1800s, sought out volunteers for an experiment to prove that mosquitos were the culprit. The risk of volunteering: death. His experiment led to a great innovation — informed consent for study volunteers — which, sadly, in recent time has also created a siloing of medical data that may hinder research.