Janos Sztipanovits

Janos Sztipanovits

Vanderbilt University's Computing the Biome research team has been awarded $5 million to continue developing artificial intelligence to detect and predict mosquito-borne diseases and outbreaks in the United States. This is the second grant the team has received as a part of the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator Program, which has invested $50 million in 10 university research teams.

In Phase II of the project, Vanderbilt’s research team will aggregate data sets — including local weather patterns, information on disease-transmitting insects and genomic sequences of viruses — previously identified in Phase I to engineer artificial intelligence that will autonomously detect biothreats.

The artificial intelligence will be integrated into “smart traps” that will use computers and lasers to detect abnormal and virus-carrying mosquitoes by variations in their wing patterns, according to Vanderbilt engineering professor and project lead Janos Sztipanovits.

“If the laser identifies a disease-carrying mosquito, the trap will suck in and trap the insect,”Sztipanovits said. “The mosquito will be taken to a lab for genomic sequencing to identify the insect, strain of the virus and how and where the virus is being transmitted.”

Worldwide, disease-bearing mosquitos are becoming resistant to chemical insecticides used to control them. Global warming and rising temperatures are creating conditions for them to spread to new areas.

The incidence of mosquito-transmitted dengue has increased 30-fold over the past 50 years, causing up to 100 million cases of the illness a year, due to urbanization, travel and rising temperatures, according to the World Health Organization.

A hotbed for mosquito-borne illnesses and insect diseases, the research team will deploy its first set of smart traps in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston.

Over the course of the next two years the Computing the Biome research will work with public health and policy experts to develop a framework to scale the project and technology to ensure impact beyond NSF’s support and funding.

Vanderbilt’s Computing the Biome team is composed of both undergraduate and graduate students studying engineering, computer science, biology and epidemiology.

“The Computing the Biome project is an extremely ambitious pioneering effort aimed at the creation of a global, real-time system for detecting and predicting biological threats as they evolve in the environment,”Sztipanovits said. “We are excited to contribute our model-integrated computing technology to this project with the goal of making a global impact.”