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 …


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  1. alwarming

    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."

  2. McBeese

    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?

    1. Eddy Ito

      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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    3. CmdrX3

      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.

    4. xxlyyk

      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.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      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 %%$%!£$£

    6. Steve Ives
      Paris Hilton

      Natural Selection?

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

    7. KirstarK
      Thumb Down

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


    8. Nev


      Controversial thought, or just utter bollocks?

    9. Valerion

      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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      1. Ru

        "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*.

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


          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.

    11. frank 3

      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.

    12. Darkwolf

      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.

  3. Charles Manning

    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.

    1. Allan George Dyer


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

      1. auburnman

        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?

    2. GitMeMyShootinIrons

      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.

    3. Paul E

      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.

      1. Charles Manning

        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.

    4. Thomas 18

      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.

    5. Adam Nealis

      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

      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.

    6. Drew V.

      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.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

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

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Not twice, for sure...

    2. Hermes Conran

      Fry the suckers!!!

      I really hate mozzies......

    3. Allan George Dyer

      Malaria Eradication Overshadowed by Blinding Epidemic

      I can see the headlines now...

  5. XMAN

    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 :)

    1. Return To Sender

      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...

      1. Dave 126 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.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      "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...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        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.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. Nuke

          @ 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.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I preferred his old system

    His previous system used lasers to shoot down the mosquitoes.

    1. Silverburn


      I was wondering that too...

  7. Herby

    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.

    1. A.A.Hamilton


      "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.

    2. Allan George Dyer

      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)

  8. Charles 9

    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!").

  9. Nick Galloway


    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.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    "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....

    1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart

      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

  11. Wang N Staines

    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. :-(

  12. Simbu

    Well, that's disappointing...

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

  13. Chris Miller

    There's nothing more dangerous then a wounded mosquito

  14. stucs201

    Reminds me of the Monty Python approach to mosquito hunting

  15. Nev
    Thumb Up

    Loving the comments...

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

    I'd love one of these puppies!

  16. Andy Farley

    Nobody canna cross it.

  17. Graham Bartlett


    Ever taken antibiotics? Yes? Then you should go out and kill yourself now, bcos that's messed with natural selection and you should have died back then.

    Not to mention washing hands before eating, wiping surfaces, etc., which has stopped you getting culled that way. Or warm clothes in winter, adequate food supply chain so you no longer starve if crops aren't so good locally, and so on.


    1. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        Laser-tolerant mosquito?

        How would they be produced? Where is the evolutionary factor that will cause them to mutate or be selected against laser intolerance?

        Why do ultrasonic mosquito repellers do not produce ultrasound-tolerant insects?

        Even chemical fumigators which you put in a wall socket still work, decades after their invention...

        1. Michael 28


          or they could get clever and wrap themselves in aluminium foil.

    2. Thomas 4


      His post quite neatly illustrates the issues of a surplus population and how it needs to be controlled, one commentard at a time....

  18. Anonymous Coward

    "That’s the beauty of it because you don't have to necessarily kill them,"

    SCREW THAT. I want to vapourise the evil little fuckers - each and every sodding one of them.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In before lame jokes about Bill Gates finally dealing with bugs.

  20. Anomalous Cowherd Silver badge

    Solving a different problem to nets

    For all the smart ass comments about how many nets £1m would buy - yes, you're very clever. But how do you walk through a net?

    The point of this is it's a different solution - you could use lasers (actually I think the latest work is with IR light rather than lasers, but whatever) on your windows and doors - this is more effective than a net here because it doesn't blow in the wind and you can walk through it without letting the little buggers in, which they're very good at.

    Some really odd comments on here about it being a problem of corruption or a somehow good thing (that McBeese, clearly a bit of a c**t). I've had three bouts of malaria. It's spectacularly not nice, and Mr Gates Windows-based transgressions are long forgiven by me for his dedication to this.

    1. Piro Silver badge


      I see it being useful over a doorway. But when possible, nets should be used as they are simple and effective. The mosquitoes can't man up and fly through the net, but they can for the laser beam.

  21. cowslayer


    Why does everything have to resort to frikkin laser beams? Me thinks buying 200k extra nets would have been a better investment.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Mozzies don't just come out when you're in bed.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There's an easier way...

    Just tell America that the mosquitos are all terrorists with nuclear weapons hidden under their semi transparent wings and they also know where all the oil is, but won't tell.

    We'll soon find a way to get rid of them. Sadly it may involve destroying the whole infrastructure of a country but apparently, that's okay.

    This works two fold, we don't have to attack Iran and America has a war where no one will be killed. I suspect the onsuing occupation and re-education of the mosquito territories may be somewhat dragged out on account of their subborness to cease being blood sucking terrorists.

  23. Imsimil Berati-Lahn

    Not trying to be funny or nuffink, but...

    ...Those look like fruitflies. Much bigger compound eye than a mozzie, obvious reason for not crossing the OW OW OW MY EYES WTF WAS THAT OWWW!

  24. owlywowly

    Squeeters aren't dumb, they're just lucky

    So, if the you have a light wall what stops wind from blowing the misquitoes through the light wall, and now...they are with u inside, and afraid to leave. Second, what makes anyone think squeeters won't just evolve quickly to actually just pass through these harmless light walls???

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It would be better to put contraceptives in the rice we give out.

    Live Aid saved 1.5 million. They then had 10 kids each. Most of whom died before adulthood, and those that did, are having another ten kids each and have caused another famine due to their numbers.

    We should have a systematic depopulation of Africa, and replace them with people who can manage themselves, before we spend another penny on maintaining millions of self destroying people on subsistence living, meaning they're forever on the edge of the abyss.

    I want peace and prosperity in Africa just as much as the next bloke, but contraception and letting stupid people die is the most efficient way of doing it, in terms of reducing human suffering.

    I know Aid agencies give useless people, the religious and bleeding heart liberals (though they're a subset of useless people,) something to do, but wouldn't it be better to do something that would actually work?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      You win the most right-wing, reactionary, basically racist comment ever award.

  26. David Pollard

    Blue Screen of Death

    This is just a marketing ploy, designed with the aim of burying the historically poor reputation associated with the BSoD. Look out for a name being given to this laser device such as White Screen of Safety.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Only the female bites, andonly when she is pregnant

    So, if a laser could be developed to zap the males in balls (or mossie equivalent) that would be brilliant (no pun intended).

    But seriously, this is science, and pure experimental science. Hats off to Gates for supporting it.

    I may loathe his software and his business methods, but, as has been pointed out, that is no reason to kick him in the gonads for trying to do some good now.

  28. Michael 28

    More power!!!!!! some stage we'll site the laser in orbit..Only way to be sure

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @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."

    Made me smile. If this is as far as your reasoning gets, then the IT industry should be very worried. I hope your problem solving skills are a little more analytical.

    If you want a step in the right direction google the phrase “antagonistic competition for profit” and you’ll be on the right lines.

  30. The Brave Sir Robin


    First there was Mosquito.NET which is now now longer a supported technology and will be replaced with Mosquito Laserlight. How about Mosquito Homosexually Transforming Mosquito Liquid version 5 to turn all mosquitoes gay so they don't breed. Yes, I'd say HTML 5 is the way of the future.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Short Sighted

    +1 Trolling. Nice work.

    For your next post, can I recommend something about babies dying from AIDS as being good for the planet.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reliability Fail

    How the hell is a spinning laser beam (to create a 'net' of light) supposed to work reliably in a place where there is

    - no money

    - excessive heat

    - unreliable/absent power

    - no trained service technicians

    A £5 mosquito net, however, does the same job for a fraction of the cost, and without the systemic flaws of this cockamamy solution.

    Personally, investing in technologies which prevent breeding of the mosquito or kill the larvae would be a much better use of $1 million dollars than this half-brained invention.

    1. Charles 9

      Then riddle me this, Batman...

      How do you make a doorway so that it allows people but not mosquitoes (including ones potentially riding ON the person)?

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