By Elton Gomes
Verily, a branch of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc, is working on plans to eliminate mosquito-borne diseases around the world, and it plans to start with Fresno, California.
If Verily’s efforts to eradicate mosquitoes in Fresno does well, the company plans to take the operation to places where such mosquitoes spread dengue fever and other diseases that claims tens of thousands of lives every year.
Although it is unclear what would happen if the mosquitoes are wiped out worldwide, some scientists say that they are unnecessary in the larger ecosystem. “After we detected it, we did a massive and extensive effort to prevent the mosquito from establishing and eliminate it,” Jodi Holeman, the scientific services director for Fresno County’s Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District told Bloomberg. “We were not successful, in any way, shape or form.”
How does Verily plan to control mosquitoes?
Jacob Crawford, a senior scientist at Verily, operates a Mercedes van that shoots swarms of male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes out of a black plastic tube on the passenger-side window. Trailing the van is Kathleen Parkes, a spokesperson for Verily Life Sciences, a unit of Alphabet.
Crawford describes the technique Verily uses. He says that male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were bred in the ultra-high-tech surroundings of Verily’s automated mosquito rearing system, which is located 200 miles away in south San Francisco. The mosquitoes were infected with Wolbachia, a common bacterium. When those lab-bred Wolbachia-infected, male mosquitoes mate with their females in the wild, the result is stealth annihilation – which means that the resulting offspring never hatch.
The Mercedes van driven by Crawford releases these Wolbachia-infected, male mosquitoes through a black plastic tube over suburban and other areas in Fresno.
A scientist named Stephen Dobson and his company, MosquitoMate, first figured out how to infect mosquitoes with a form of Wolbachia. MosquitoMate breeds two species of mosquitoes that are infected with Wolbachia, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. The company then began testing the technique in Fresno.
Is the technique working?
This year, Verily signed on for a second season of releases. Two Verily trucks ply across four different neighborhoods, and spray mosquitoes over more than 3,000 homes. In the past six months, the company released more than 15 million mosquitoes.
Results from 2017 indicated that the population of biting female mosquitoes dropped by two-thirds. This year, some modifications to the program have cut mosquito population by a whopping 95 percent.
A second project by Verily in Innisfail, Australia, concluded in June. The project reduced the mosquito population by 80 percent.
Why are mosquitoes such a huge problem?
Unlike other mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti lives and breeds in places inhabited by people. It can lay its eggs in the few droplets of stagnant water at the bottom of a wine glass left on a balcony, and then hide under beds and in closets, biting legs and ankles. This makes it much harder to fight.
What other efforts were suggested to fight mosquitoes?
Bill Gates alone has pledged more than $1 billion for technologies that could help in the eradication of malaria, including efforts to genetically modify mosquitoes. However, the technology has been deemed highly controversial.
In the technique, biologists proposed altering mosquitoes so that they’re more resistant to diseases like malaria and dengue. Using a mechanism known as a “gene drive,” the researchers said that they could quickly push an alteration through an entire species.
“In less than five years, I think there’s a good chance it will be out there,” Gates said in an interview with Bloomberg. However, whether altered mosquitos become a reality remains to be seen since the technology has been highly controversial.
Verily’s approach, on the other hand, relies on a variation of a very old strategy known as sterile insect technique, wherein a population is gradually killed off by altering its ability to reproduce.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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