Could LEDs Help Fight the Zika Virus?

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It’s difficult to blame any single factor for the rapid spread of diseases like the Zika virus and dengue fever. One thing on which experts can agree, however, is that warmer temperatures around the globe are helping tropical insects survive in temperate zones. About 4 billion people are at risk of mosquito-borne infectious disease today, according to the World Health Organization. More hospitable conditions for the insects could push that figure to as high as 9 billion by the end of the century.

But blanketing our population centers in toxic bug sprays and pesticides isn’t exactly a comforting solution. Lighting Science Group, a Florida company that specializes in the application of light-emitting diode (LED) technology, thinks it has a better way. The company is part of a growing field of research that seeks to control pests using light.

LEDs have matured a lot from the cold, blue diodes of the 1980s. “With LEDs, the great promise is control,” says Travis Longcore, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who studies the effect of light on insects. “It’s control on illumination, on timing, on spectrum.” For Lighting Science, that approach has led to highly tuned LEDs that disinfect water, keep astronauts on alert, and steer infant sea turtles away from highways. The effort is all about finding the perfect light to attract—and distract—insects.

Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s entomology lab in Gainesville, Fla., Lighting Science began testing its light-based bug traps this spring. “There is room for improvement in existing trapping technology,” says USDA research entomologist Daniel Kline. He’s specifically interested in the idea of targeting insects associated with diseases like Zika and malaria.

To that end, the traps follow a simple principle: Different bugs—even different mosquito species—are attracted to different light wavelengths. “There is no one size fits all,” says Fred Maxik, Lighting Science’s chief technology officer. With the traps placed in the USDA’s controlled mosquito habitats, he’ll be able to pinpoint the light that will draw in specific insects.

Traps with LEDs tuned for certain species (Zika, for instance, is linked to the Aedes aegypti mosquito) will eventually be field-tested. A consumer version should follow within a year. Maxik hopes ultimately to create a smart trap that can sense which bugs are nearby (thanks to a low-resolution camera that identifies critters by criteria like size and wing-flapping speed) and tally what it traps.

For more on the Zika virus, read “What Zika Will Cost in the U.S.

On the flip side, learning how to attract bugs also tells Lighting Science how to distract them, which could prevent smart traps from capturing innocuous butterflies and honeybees. Above all, the knowledge will help the company make light fixtures that steer bugs away from offices, homes, schools, and hospitals. Says Maxik: “We’re trying to ­create light that’s useful for our own purposes.”

A version of this article appears in the June 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Into the Light.”

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