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Blowin’ in the WindJoe Cepeda

Blowin’ in the Wind

Quinine, chloroquine, artemisinin, DDT and pyrethroids. Over the past century, humans have targeted malaria and the mosquitoes that carry it with an arsenal of chemicals but have yet to fully control the disease. Professor David Smith is taking aim with a different weapon: math.

Smith, PhD, who began his academic career in mathematics and ecology but ended up a professor of Epidemiology, says he is interested in getting into mosquitoes’ heads, or in his words, their “search algorithm”: the basic hardwiring that tells the insect how to move from the pool in which it was born to the house of its human prey and then back to the pool to reproduce. This demands a close reading of the mosquitoes’ behaviors, and the latest factor to catch his attention is the wind.

In a Feb. 14 Nature Communications article, Smith and his co-authors show that wind direction helps predict the homes that mosquitoes are most likely to target, and therefore the children at greatest risk for contracting malaria. During the rainy season when the study was conducted, in nighttime hours when the mosquitoes are biting, the wind was consistently in a southerly direction. This had a significant influence on the spatial distribution of malaria incidence in the study area in Kenya.

The finding may help control the vector in order to curb the disease, but more importantly, it is another small step toward a more complete understanding of the mosquito mind. “The bigger message is that there is a research agenda to try and understand how mosquitoes find humans,” says Smith. “If we can understand those algorithms across species, then we can do a much better job at predicting where humans are at risk, and therefore at doing malaria control.”

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