For the majority of folks in first-world nations, the “buzz” of a nearby mosquito is little more than an annoyance. But for millions of poverty-stricken people worldwide, the same sound is the call of death.
Zika, West Nile virus, and malaria are easily transported by mosquitoes and, as a result, cause millions of deaths worldwide each year. It is for this reason that the creature is considered to be one of the deadliest animals in the world. It is also why Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., intends to force a mass mosquito extinction.
According to a new Bloomberg report, efforts have already started in Fresno, California. Every day during mosquito season, researchers with Alphabet’s Verily Life Sciences, a unit of Alphabet, drive to pre-determined locations in residential areas. They then release swarms of male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes out of a black, plastic tube on the passenger side.
The vermin were bred in an automated mosquito rearing system developed by Kathleen Parkes, a spokesperson for Verily Life Sciences. While in captivity, all 80,000 mosquitoes were infected with Wolbachia, a common bacterium. This ensures that when they breed with their counterpart females in the wild, the offspring never hatch. In other words, it’s stealth annihilation.
The goal is to eventually wipe out entire populations of deadly mosquitoes and the diseases they carry, particularly in regions where citizens are at-risk of contracting viruses that are transported by mosquitoes. “The key part is trying to be able to do a program like this in a very affordable and efficient way,” said Crawford, the Verily scientist, “so that we can go to places where there isn’t a lot of money.”
The idea comes from Stephen Dobson and his company, MosquitoMate. Dobson and his team discovered how to infect mosquitoes with a form of the bacterium that is different from the type mosquitoes usually carry. This, in turn, causes the eggs to become unviable. After discovering his work, the city of Fresno partnered with Dobson.
The trial is in its second year and seems to be working. In six months, the company released more than 15 million mosquitoes in the air. Bloomberg reports:
“Results from 2017 suggested the population of biting female mosquitoes dropped by two-thirds. This year, tweaks to the program have cut the mosquito population by a whopping 95 percent. A second project by Verily in Innisfail, Australia, that concluded in June reduced the mosquito population by 80 percent. This bodes well for eventually bringing the technology to other parts of the world—regions ravaged not just by itchy ankles but by deadly disease.”
There is concern that Alphabet Inc.’s plan has faults. After all, the ecological role mosquitoes play hasn’t been thoroughly studied. While some scientists suggest Earth will be fine without them, only time will reveal the long-term effect(s) of manipulating nature.
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