How AI and mosquito sex parties can save the world

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Diptera.ai has raised a $3 million seed round to fight mosquitoes with mosquitoes — and AI-based sex sorting.

Jerusalem-based Diptera.ai has figured out a way to use AI to fight the growing threat of mosquitoes, which are spreading malaria and viruses like Zika, dengue, and yellow fever. While the method for fighting mosquitoes has been around for decades, AI can take it to a new level and democratize what was otherwise a very costly and localized abatement effort.

We’ll get to the sex parties in a bit.

Diptera.ai is using computer vision and eco-friendly technology to make it easier to control mosquito populations using the sterile insect technique, which sends sterilized male mosquitoes to mate with female mosquitoes, said Diptera.ai CEO Vic Levitin, in an interview with VentureBeat.

“We think we can disrupt the $100 billion pest control market,” Levitin said, noting that many other pest control methods are toxic to both humans and the environment.

Mosquitoes threaten the world

Mosquito larvae

Above: Mosquito larvae.

Image Credit: Diptera.ai

The company could help mitigate the death toll from mosquitoes. More than just a nuisance, they are the deadliest creatures on Earth, as they kill more than 700,000 people a year and infect hundreds of millions more with diseases. A recent book, The Mosquito by Timothy Winegard, cites estimates that mosquitoes have killed 52 billion people — nearly half of the humans who have ever lived.

Diptera.ai’s technology works for a host of insects, including household and agricultural pests. The company is starting with mosquitoes, a rapidly growing problem with no effective solution to date. Due to climate change, by 2050 half of the world’s population (including the U.S. and Europe) will be living among disease-spreading mosquitoes.

With its technology in the testing stage now, Diptera.ai plans to offer an affordable subscription service to what it calls a highly effective and eco-friendly biological pest control method. Most pest control methods are based on insecticides that are toxic to both humans and the environment. Despite its high effectiveness, sterilization has thus far been limited to a handful of pests because of the prohibitive costs in implementing it.

Standard control methods are losing effectiveness as mosquitoes rapidly become resistant to existing pesticides. Moreover, public opinion and regulation limit the use of toxic insecticides. As a result, people increasingly find themselves unable to enjoy the outdoors without being at risk from emerging and potentially devastating diseases.

Enter Diptera.ai

Diptera.ai's lab in Israel.

Above: Ariel Livne, CTO of Diptera.ai, at a lab in Israel.

Image Credit: Diptera.ai

Levitin believes his company can stop mosquitoes by the billions, mainly by releasing sterile males to mate with females. “We create mosquito sex parties,” he said.

Trust Ventures led the funding round, with participation from existing investors IndieBio and Fresh.fund, as well as new investors who joined the round.

Diptera.ai was started by Ariel Livne, Elly Ordan, and Levitin. In October 2020, the team graduated from the IndieBio Accelerator, and it now has 10 employees. The seed round should enable the company to finish its pilot, which could grow into a product launch.

“We’ve raised enough money to prove the concept,” Levitin said.

At some point, the Environmental Protection Agency will likely have to approve the Diptera.ai solution.

The sterile insect technique (SIT)

Above: Elly Ordan of Diptera.ai inspects mosquito larvae.

Image Credit: Diptera.ai

The sterile insect technique (SIT) is a biological pest control method in which mostly government-run entities release overwhelming numbers of sterile male insects into the wild. These sterile males mate with female mosquitoes, which are the only mosquitoes that bite humans and animals. The female mosquitoes only mate once in their lifetimes, but they each lay hundreds of eggs. If they can be tricked into mating with sterile males, then they won’t create offspring.

“The sterile insect technique is the most effective,” Levitin said. “Mosquitoes mate once as females in their lives. If they mate with sterile males, then it suppresses the population.”

This technique has been used in the U.S. to control the spread of the Mediterranean fruit fly, with billions a month being released into the wild. But it is expensive due to high production and distribution costs, and is often limited to localized control efforts.

The technique started in the 1950s in Russia and the U.S., when it was used to control the tsetse fly in Africa.

In 1998, the Debug project saw Google’s Verily unit release millions of sterile mosquitoes into the area of Fresno, California, resulting in a temporary 93% suppression of the population during mosquito season, which runs from around March through October.

Mosquito economics

Above: Vic Levitin (center) is cofounder and CEO of Diptera.ai.

Image Credit: Diptera.ai

Diptera.ai’s market research has shown their solution is 20 times less expensive than existing SIT methods.

For most insects, the bottleneck for SIT is sex separation. Currently mosquitoes are sex-sorted late in their development, when the mosquitoes are fragile and have a limited remaining lifespan of a few days. Shipping them is impractical, Levitin said.

Normally, implementing SIT requires building and maintaining a local mosquito factory near every release site. Diptera.ai combines computer vision, deep biology, and automation to sex-sort mosquitoes (and other insects) at the larval stage, which was previously considered impossible. This allows for a centralized mass production of sterile male mosquitoes that can then be shipped to the end customers for release.

“We can sex sort them at the larva stage,” said Levitin. “Larvae used to be considered asexual. Nobody tried to sex-sort them. This is where we are innovative. We can tell the sex when they are larvae. That’s two weeks before they become adults. So we can produce them in mass production and then ship them across the country. This gives us economies of scale where we can offer it as a service.”

Mosquitoes exist as larvae for a lot longer than they live as adults. If you can identify the males and females at this stage, then there is a lot more time to ship them to the right place in the country, and then the whole U.S. could be served by a mass-production factory that churns out sterilized mosquitoes by the billions.

Once it separates the males, Diptera.ai sterilizes them with radiation, using the equivalent of a microwave oven, except one used for sterilization purposes. The oven is about the size of a pizza oven, and it’s not dangerous to humans, Levitin said.

Most of the mosquitoes in the U.S. are of the Asian tiger variety (Aedes albopictus), and these mosquitoes don’t travel far, making it easier to take down populations with localized efforts. By contrast, mosquitoes in Africa can fly long distances, and that makes it harder to control the population, Levitin said.

“Just like the cloud disrupted the computing industry with affordable, on-demand computing power, Diptera.ai disrupts pest control with an affordable SIT-as-a-service,” Levitin said. “Instead of building and maintaining insect production factories, customers will subscribe to our service to receive shipments of sterile males ready for release.”

With Diptera.ai’s service, luxury resorts, residential complexes, or even homeowners should be able to afford the eradication service. It has to be a subscription because the mosquitoes will come back, year after year, if you don’t take them out regularly.

“It’s like the Mafia,” Levitin said. “You are paying protection money to us.”

By the way, this is the second Israeli startup that I’ve seen take up the fight against mosquitoes. Bzigo uses computer vision to find where a mosquito lands in your home, then it shines a laser on it so you can zap the mosquito yourself. No matter how much Diptera.ai succeeds, I imagine there will always be a need for Bzigo’s product.

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