The high-pitched whine of a mosquito is annoying, but scientists have developed an app that uses that sound to detect dangerous mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes kill hundreds of thousands of people each year by spreading microbes that cause diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever. But researcher Haripriya Vaidehi Narayanan says anyone with a cellphone can help tackle these diseases by using the Abuzz app to identify mosquitoes.
"If they see a mosquito around us, they just open the phone, open up the app, point their phone towards the mosquito and hit the record button," said Narayanan, who started working on the project as a graduate student at Stanford University. She's now in the Department of Immunology at the University of California Los Angeles.
"So then, when the mosquito flaps its wings and starts flying around, it makes that noise, that annoying buzzing noise … that noise is what gets recorded by the Abuzz app," she added.
Many mosquito-borne diseases don't have cures or vaccines, so targeting mosquitoes is the best approach to controlling these diseases.
"If we're going to tackle diseases caused by mosquitoes like malaria or dengue, the most important step is to know where the mosquitoes are," Narayanan said.
Listening for answers
Traditional mosquito monitoring can be time-consuming and expensive because it requires labor-intensive trapping and trained scientists to identify the tiny insects.
There are around 3,500 different mosquito species, but only about 40 are dangerous to humans, according to Manu Prakash, professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and principal investigator of the project.
"In your backyard, do you have a nuisance mosquito or do you have a potentially dangerous mosquito?" Prakash said.
To answer that question, Prakash's team decided to listen. When mosquitoes beat their wings up and down, they produce that distinctive buzzing sound. Every mosquito species makes a slightly different buzz.
Users record as little as one or two seconds of a mosquito sound with the Abuzz app on their cellphone. The app compares this recording against a database and decides which species of mosquito it is most likely to be.
Because the tool — any cellphone or smartphone — is already in billions of people's pockets, the team says they'll be able to monitor mosquitoes on a much larger scale than previously possible.
"This is something that doesn't require fancy smartphones, just the very bare minimum, basic cellphones are actually good enough," Prakash said.
By crowd-sourcing mosquito information from across the world, the app will build maps of where dangerous mosquitoes are found. This will help scientists and health authorities predict where disease outbreaks might occur and where to target mosquito control.
Prakash believes this type of community engagement is key to tackling big problems like mosquito-borne disease.
"The more number of people engage the better the tool gets. So, we're very excited that if literally, you know, hundreds of thousands of people are recording mosquitoes every day especially, you know, around the world, it will create the kind of community that is needed," Prakash said.
The Abuzz app will be available to download for free in the next month or two.
Another group of researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom is developing a similar cellphone app — called Mozzwear — that identifies malaria mosquitoes by their sound.