The plan calls for releasing millions of infected mosquitoes into the wild around Fresno, California, to test a population control method that will affect only mosquitoes and pose no threat to humans or animals.
Last Friday, Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences) announced the launch of Debug Fresno, the first field test of their plan to eradicate the Aedes aegypti species in California.
The company says it has developed an autonomous robot that can breed 150,000 mosquitoes a week. It plans to release 1 million infected mosquitoes every week for 20 weeks over the summer in an attempt to decrease the wild mosquito population in two 300 acre neighborhoods in the Fresno area.”
Residents won’t need to stock up on bug spray because the released mosquitoes will be infected with “Wolbachia pipientis,” a naturally occurring bacteria that makes male mosquitoes sterile.
When the non-biting Wolbachia-carrying male mates with a wild female, none of their eggs will be able to produce offspring. Over time, the team hopes that the method will cause the mosquitoes population to drop.”
This test will mark the largest test using males mosquitoes treated with Wolbachia in the United States. Verily says it will use automated devices to equally distribute the mosquitoes across the test area.
If we really want to be able to help people globally, we need to be able to produce a lot of mosquitoes, distribute them to where they need to be, and measure the populations at very, very low costs,” Linus Upson, a senior engineer at Verily, told the MIT Technology Review.
Verily is working in collaboration with MosquitoMate and the Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District (CMAD). Those organizations ran a previous test in 2016 that released about 800,000 Wolbachia-infected male mosquitoes in Fresno.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided an experimental use permit for the test. It noted that the experiment “presented minimal risks to non-target organisms and the environment” and renewed the permit for the upcoming Verily test.
Mosquito Mate founder Stephen Dobson, who patented how to make the Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes, told Wired that the number of mosquitoes Verily is planning to release is “starting to get into the level where you can actually have an epidemiological impact on disease transmission.”
Observers are eager to see how well the test works and whether it will prove to be a mosquito control method that can be replicated globally. The CMAD is hopeful it will help stem the spread of diseases in the Fresno area that could be carried by the Aedes egypti.
This invasive species has really changed everything about mosquitoes in California,” Steve Mulligan, the district director at CMAD, told Wired. “They’re expanding ranges, and they don’t respond well to conventional control methods. When you add that along with emerging diseases it’s a real challenge.”