AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting AMA Series: Hi, I’m Ethan Jackson of Microsoft Research, and I lead Project PREMONITION, which uses emerging technologies to detect, and help thwart, epidemics. Recently, we developed a trap to catch mosquitos that could track spread of Zika. Ask me anything!



Hi Ethan,

Bill Gates has successfully conveyed to most of us that mosquitoes are the most deadliest animals and contribute 54% to the total human deaths. Gates suggest that genome editing Anopheles gambiae species of mosquito to produce sterile male offspring is one way to prevent transmission of malaria - a deadly mosquito disease. I have two questions -

  1. I always wonder the significance of a mosquito in our environment. Why are they important? What purpose do they serve? What will we lose if they do not exist?

  2. Have you deployed your sophisticated mosquito trap? Did you find out any unknown viruses?


Great questions: 1: From my conversations with entomologists and ecologists there is still open debate as to whether parts of the ecosystem depend heavily on mosquitoes as food source. However, there are over 3,600 species of mosquitoes, only a few of which are human disease vectors. So, in malaria eradication projects the question becomes even more narrow: "Do the mosquitoes that transmit malaria play a significant role in the ecosystem?". For this question, I believe the consensus is "no". Let me point you to the 2016 program for the International Conference on Entomology, which was the largest gathering of entomologists in history discussing many issues:

2: We deployed our devices in collaboration with Harris County Public Health during the summer of 2016. From this deployment we learned how the big data collected could be useful for public programs. We also gene sequenced and analyzed bloodfed mosquitoes using a metagenomics pipeline developed as part of this project. We found both recently discovered viruses and novel viruses in mosquitoes. However, the ecology of these viruses is unknown, and this is part of the motivation to build a system that can provide much more data about potential pathogens in the environment.

Welcome and thanks for joining us today!

Any thoughts on which of these:

  • Mayaro
  • Barmah
  • Sindbis
  • Ross River
  • O'nyong'nyong

will be the next pandemic?


Definitely the billion dollar question: "Which virus will be the next pandemic mosquito-borne disease?". For readers unfamiliar with these viruses: these are other mosquito-borne viruses that have not emerged in The Americas, but -- like Zika -- the mosquitoes that could transmit these diseases are present.

I won't try to make a prediction, because there are so many variables. Instead, we are trying to build systems that could gives us the data to make this prediction. The data we are trying to get is fine grained temporal/spatial information about mosquito behavior, and deep metagenomic data about the possible pathogens in samples. In this way, we hope to detect -- as early as possible -- interesting changes in disease vectors, and computationally detect (novel) pathogens by scanning against all known pathogens.

Thanks for doing this AMA! I've been interested in this project since seeing the MS Cloud commercial, and planning on discussing it as part of a bioethics course I teach. I might track you down at AAAS to ask this, but in case I miss you:

What considerations are being given to any potential human DNA samples collected via mosquito? Genetic information lives in a fascinating ethical and legal gray area, in that a test subject does not own their genetic information but is still owed some amount of privacy. It seems clear you can't exactly get consent for human data that falls into your traps, but throwing it out could potentially lose the most valuable information.


From the computer science prospective: safety, security, privacy are key components of our thinking, research, and engineering (especially when drones come into the equation). But let me focus on the DNA, and we can leave the computer science details for another question.

From the perspective of mosquitoes and DNA, they are not considered to carry human data (e.g. they are generally IRB exempt), nor are the considered to carry personally identifiable information because we don't know what they've bitten when we catch them. Also, after consuming a blood meal, they begin to digest those nucleic acids quickly. In our studies we see rapid degradation of host DNA, so even though the kind of host can be determined, the ability to match that specific host (e.g. a specific dog) to a library of individuals (e.g. a library of individual dog genomes) is unclear.

Nonetheless, to be on the safe side, we employ state-of-the-art security and privacy techniques to safely store data and return high-level reports that need not reveal specific genomic data.

Hi Ethan, this is a really cool project. Can you describe a little bit about how Microsoft got involved? It seems like it uses some pretty advanced, cutting-edge scientific techniques - high-throughput genomic screening from blood samples, analysis of genomic data, etc. How does Microsoft get the expertise for these endeavors? Do you collaborate with a team of scientists or other companies/organizations? Would love to hear more about how something like this gets started!



Great question: Microsoft has supported basic research through Microsoft Research for over 25 years. Through this support, we are able explore new technologies and think carefully about how new technologies might be useful to society. My personal research background is building safe autonomous systems. I became interested in applying autonomous systems to disease surveillance after the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014. Who would imagine one of the rarest viruses on earth would become a global concern so quickly? I wanted to understand if there would have been some way to detect this threat before an outbreak occurred.

Because we have such a long history collaborating with academic institutions we were able to build a cross lab and cross institution research team from Vanderbilt, UC Riverside, John Hopkins, and University of Pittsburgh to think deeply about this problem. This team brought together knowledge in robotics, machine learning, hardware design, virology, entomology, epidemiology, and cyber-physical systems. For more links to the team check out:

Hi, thanks for doing this! May I ask what kinds of drones are used? How do the drones work to collect mosquitoes (sorry if this is in the video, I can't see it at the moment!)? Is it more of a broad net or do they somehow target individual mosquitoes?


We want to understand if drones could more efficiently obtain and retrieve samples from the environment. Today this a manual task that might require driving for many hours or hiking through marshes. We are envisioning drones that would be able to find mosquito hot-spots and eventually place and retrieve smart traps. In the nearer term, just finding the hot-spots already appears to be incredibly useful. Disease carrying mosquitoes can breed in difficult to locate places that are hard to see from a truck or on foot.

However, even this task requires significant research to ensure drones navigate safely through complex environments. Microsoft Research has been applying its work on machine learning, safety & security, and operating systems to build a platform that would be up to this task. (We have been working with many platforms: DJI and 3DR are a few examples.) We recently released a simulation environment to help train machine learning algorithms to better fly drones. You can check it out here:

So, to make the long story short: we are still researching ways to enable drones to perform these tasks safely, and we haven't yet specialized the system to locating a certain type of mosquito.

can you explain a little bit more about how the mosquito traps work? from the video you posted, it looks like the mosquitos are robotically collected, then the traps are retrieved by field researchers and brought back to a lab for analysis. Is this correct? If so, how long are the traps left out for, and is there food (sugar solution) in the traps to keep the mosquitos alive until collection?

second, are you focusing exclusively on adult mosquitos or are you planning to do any work looking at breeding sites/eggs/larval samples? Perhaps to look at vertical transmission of pathogens.


The traps consist of an array of "smart cells". Each cell is like a Venus flytrap, quietly waiting until an interesting insect passes by, and then snaps shut to capture it. This decision is made using an infrared sensor. When an insect flies into a cell, its body casts a moving shadow in this infrared light, and the pattern of that shadow helps the cell determine the kind of insect that passed by. In addition, the trap has an a set of environmental sensors: time, light, humidity, temperature, GPS location, barometric pressure etc... that can be used to further identify the species of insect that might have flown into a cell.

To teach the trap, entomologists first deploy it a novel environment, and allow it to catch a number of specimens. A chemical lure is put inside the device, and we normally use is CO2, since it is a general attractant for blood feeding insects.

Once placed in the environment, the entomologists leaves it in there for around 20 hours. The next day, the trap is brought back to the lab and the captured samples are identified by entomologist (typically the insects are highly alive :-) ). Because we know the digital data associated with each specimen, we can then learn a classifier that automatically identifies species (with some error rate).

This sensors on this device are designed for flying insects, so currently we are focusing on adult mosquitoes.

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