By Chantele Karim
“I became interested in vector-borne diseases in Spring of 2016, when I conducted an independent study on the ethical advancement of genetically modifying technology. I discussed the potential application of CRISPR to mosquitoes, primarily Aedes aegypti, in the effort to combat dengue. Throughout my extensive research, the danger posed by mosquitoes was commonly emphasized by diverse sources. It was thus surprising to read that Microsoft’s Project Premonition is based on the assertion that mosquitoes can be useful to us in our quest to control vector-borne diseases. My intrigue led me to research the project further to better understand its method, application, and potential.”
Vector-borne epidemics have become increasingly common across the globe, causing over 1 million deaths and affecting over 1 billion people annually . As such, efforts to mitigate their spread have gained momentum. Due to the fact that numerous emerging vector-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, and zika are transmitted primarily by mosquitoes, many disease-control strategies have focused on minimizing mosquito populations . Among the diverse strategies that have been tested and employed on mosquitoes are genetically modifying them with gene-editing techniques such as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) or release of insects with dominant lethality (RIDL), altering their habitats and resources by introducing competitor or predatory species, and using insecticides. Each of these methods have been met with varying degrees of success and concern for the safety of their use [3,5,6]. One particular team has undertaken a different approach – rather than attempting to combat mosquito populations, Microsoft’s Project Premonition seeks to learn from the valuable information they can provide us. It does so with the vision that future vector-borne outbreaks may not only be controlled, but avoided altogether .
It is unusual to suggest that mosquitoes, being the primary vectors of harmful infectious diseases, may be used to prevent such diseases. Since its inception in 2015, Project Premonition, led by Microsoft researcher Ethan Jackson, has worked to create a system that uses data collected from mosquitoes to detect pathogens before they cause widespread outbreaks. This has been difficult to do thus far, mainly because of the difficulty in collecting reliable data using current traditional techniques. Project Premonition aims to override this obstacle by effectively finding “mosquito hotspots” with drones rather than satellites, collecting mosquitoes with robotic traps that are equipped to lure and identify specimens, and detecting both known and unknown pathogens with a metagenomics approach that involves gene sequencing the collected mosquito DNA with a SNAP alignment tool, a recent development made collaboratively by Microsoft, UC Berkeley, and UCSF [1,2,4,7].
The project aims to acquire data on mosquito genetics and behavior across various species, as well as environmental data pertaining to natural factors such as time, wind, temperature, and light levels. The data will be analyzed collectively to visualize patterns in mosquitoes and the spread of vector-borne diseases, which will then be used to predict oncoming epidemics. In doing so, the project can enable disease-mitigation strategies to work more efficiently, simply by alerting them to certain diseases that are gaining prevalence. The project may also enable diseases to be prevented completely [4,7].
While Project Premonition is not a solution to the vector-borne epidemics currently affecting world populations, it offers itself as a potentially valuable method for disease prevention in the near future. The collaborative effort between Microsoft and various academic and research institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University, UCSF, UC Riverside, and UC Berkeley, highlights the project’s multidimensional and innovative approach, which may help ensure its practicality in terms of cost, safety, and efficacy. Despite its atypical attitude toward disease-spreading mosquitoes, Project Premonition’s ability to recognize the usefulness of mosquitoes as well as their imposing threat is precisely what makes its endeavor promising [4,7].
- Boyle, Alan. “How Microsoft’s Project Premonition uses robotic traps to zero in on Zika mosquitoes.” 16 February 2017. Web. 1 May 2017.
- “How to use mosquitoes to combat disease.” The Economist. 23 February 2017. Web. 1 May 2017.
- Kistler, Kathryn E et al. “Genome Engineering with CRISPR-Cas9 in the Mosquito Aedes aegypti.” Cell Reports. 11.1 (2015): 51-60. Science Direct. Web. 18 March 2016.
- Linn, Allison. “Project Premonition aims to use mosquitoes, drones, cloud computing to prevent disease outbreaks.” Microsoft. 10 June 2015. Web. 1 May 2017.
- “Mosquito Control.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 25 April 2017. Web. 1 May 2017.
- Nimmo, Derric. “ RIDL; What is it? How Does It Work? Does It Work? And What’s In The Future…?” Oxitec. n.d
- “Project Premonition.” Microsoft. Web. 1 May 2017.
- “Vector-borne diseases.” World Health Organization. February 2016. Web. 1 May 2017.