The life sciences arm of Google’s parent company will release 20 million Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes in California over the next 20 weeks in a bid to decimate harmful mosquito populations.
Verily will release the insects in two Fresno neighborhoods for its Debug Project. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, specifically built a robot that produces up to a million of sterile mosquitoes every week.
Since only female mosquitoes are capable of biting humans, the ones involved in the project are males. They carry the Wolbachia bacteria which allow the males to fly around and mate with females like normal mosquitoes. However, the eggs produced by the females won’t hatch. If the experiment is successful, it can dramatically reduce the presence of mosquitoes.
Scientists have long known that Wolbachia can make certain mosquito populations sterile. They hope that the project can significantly contribute to curbing deadly diseases like dengue, malaria, and Zika.
The Fresno experiment is specifically targeting the aggressive Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which are potential carriers of dengue, Zika, and chikungunya viruses. Scientists will flood the neighborhoods with the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes. The female mosquitoes living in the area will most likely mate with the infected males.
If the cycle continues, there’s a possibility to eliminate the invasive Aedes species in the areas covered by the project. Apart from Verily’s scientists, biotech corporation MosquitoMate and Fresno County’s own Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District are helping the initiative.
Officials told the Washington Post that the mosquitoes have “changed the way people can enjoy their back yard,” that’s why they are searching for new methods to combat the “terrible biting nuisances.”
Contrary to other proposed experiments, the project involving Wolbachia doesn’t require genetic modification of the mosquitoes. Many have previously opposed the release of genetically engineered species into the wild.
Verily scientist Jacob Crawford said through Debug’s blog that they are looking forward to expand the project.
“Moving our work from the laboratory to the field is not only an important milestone for our group of biologists, engineers, and automation experts, but it’s also a critical step in bringing our long-term vision to reality.”
Researchers are hopeful of the trial’s success so that the same initiative can be done in other countries where mosquito-transmitted diseases are rampant. The same tests are being done in Australia, Brazil, and Vietnam.
Last summer, the approach was carried out in China’s Shazai Island because of the Zika virus. The results were described as “stunning” because 99 percent of the mosquito population was eradicated after a year of conducting the tests.
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