DARPA vs. the mosquito

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New technology would temporarily modify skin microbiome to reduce attraction of disease-causing mosquitos.

In the age-old war against the pesky, disease-carrying mosquito, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is trying a new tactic. Rather than depend on bed nets, repellants or anti-malarial therapeutics to keep warfighters free from mosquitoes and the diseases they transmit, DARPA wants to temporarily modify the skin microbiome -- the ecosystem of microorganism that live on the skin -- to improve resiliency of military personnel to mosquitos.

The ReVector program plans to develop safe and precise technologies that change the metabolic process in the skin to disrupt the way mosquitoes locate and feed on humans. The solution aims to protect warfighters for two weeks per application and last even through regular showers.

“Mosquitoes present one of the most stubborn threats out there to the health of deployed troops. Despite an array of existing countermeasures and prevention efforts, mosquito-transmitted diseases remain prevalent around much of the world,” ReVector Program Manager Christian Sund said. “DARPA wants to apply the tools of biological engineering to create a new protective approach that is optimized for troops in the field. Our end goal is a treatment that is simple to apply, low maintenance, and without undesirable side effects.”

Even though DARPA is narrowing the project to focus on only three types of mosquitos, solutions must be versatile enough to work on several distinct microbiomes and accommodate natural variances that occur over time and among individuals. And although prebiotics, probiotics, antibiotics or targeted antimicrobials may provide solutions, researchers must develop processes that can safely transition a warfighters  skin microbiome to the desired mosquito-resistant state.

Besides the biological engineering, ReVector requires new predictive analysis and modeling algorithms to design the microbiome modifications that capture natural variability across humans and can be used to scale the solution to a complex community.

DARPA acknowledges that "the diversity of individual host metabolism and secretions, as well as diversity of microbiomes on and between individuals, will complicate the design of a 'universal solution,'" but said that by the end of the four-year program, researchers should be able to demonstrate "a safe, precise treatment that delivers a 100-fold reduction in mosquito feeding."

Read the broad agency announcement here.

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