As we all know Aedes aegypti is found throughout the world, with devastating consequences and carries diseases such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya, which are spread through mosquito bites.

Verily, the life sciences arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet, plans to release 20 million mosquitoes treated with a bacteria called wolbachia, in Fresno, a city in California’s San Joaquin Valley, in a bid to stamp out one of the most troublesome species – the Aedes aegypti under a project named Debug.

What is Wolbachia?

Wolbachia is a natural bacterium present in up to 60% of all the different species of insects around us, including some mosquitoes. And it is harmless to humans as per Eliminate Dengue Programme (EDP), a not-for-profit international collaboration led from Monash University as part of the Institute of Vector-Borne Disease.

Also research by EDP has shown that when wolbachia is introduced into the Aedes aegypti mosquito population, it can prevent the viruses carried by A. aegypti and being transmitted to people.

Wolbachia spreading mechanism

They will mate with wild female mosquitoes and, though these females will go on to lay eggs, no offspring will be born as a result. Their technique doesn’t involve chemicals, toxins or genetic modification.

When a male mosquito that carries Wolbachia mates with a female without the bacteria then that female’s eggs don’t hatch. Wolbachia infected female mosquitoes do not suffer from this effect and produce normal numbers of offspring – which carry Wolbachia. Initially, this reproductive effect will be very small as there will be few Wolbachia infected mosquitoes in the population, but over successive generations the numbers of males and female mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia will increase, explains EDP, who releases a smaller number of male and female mosquitoes with wolbachia over a number of weeks

Is it safe?

The idea of releasing wolbachia-infected mosquitoes into the wild is not new, but this is the first time it has been trialled on such a large scale.

In the past, raising huge numbers of mosquitoes was tricky, but the teams of scientists and engineers at Debug have come up with technology to make rearing them much easier. The company also uses a combination of sensors, algorithms and novel engineering to quickly and accurately sort males from females.

If the project is successful, it could lead to other trials in diseased areas and help communities around the world affected by mosquito-borne viruses.


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