Can AI defeat the tsetse fly to stop disease?


The African tsetse fly is the only transmitter of the infectious sleeping sickness, which kills thousands of people and millions of livestock annually in sub-Saharan Africa. A new strategy of breeding the flies in captivity, sterilizing the males, and then releasing them into the wild has been successful in disrupting their mating patterns and causing many colonies to collapse. Now a researcher at Columbia has found a way streamline this process, with the potential to save lives and make portions of Africa habitable again.

Zelda Moran, a staff research associate at Columbia’s Earth Institute invented an imaging technique that can see inside tsetse flies’ pupa before they hatch. This led to the discovery that male and female pupae develop on different schedules. Using this information, Moran collaborated with Columbia physicist Szabolcs Marka to create an artificial intelligence program that can instantly identify male flies and separate them to be sterilized through an automated system.

Moran is currently in conversations with scientists at The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about building a prototype for the tsetse-breeding facility in Senegal. The IAEA oversees international scientists working on the Senegalese project. Moran hopes her technology, if proven effective, will enable the IAEA to expand its tsetse-sterilization project and eventually bring it to other African countries. Learn more.

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