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On Friday, Verily announced the launch of Debug Fresno, the first field study in their Debug Project to “to reduce the devastating global health impact that disease-carrying mosquitoes inflict on people around the world.”
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.
The mosquitoes are not genetically modified, however, they have all been infected with “Wolbachia pipientis,”a naturally occurring bacteria that is not harmful to humans, but renders the male mosquitoes essentially 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.
The test will mark the largest release of male mosquitoes treated with Wolbachia in the US. The company says they will then use automated devices to release the infected males evenly across the 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.
The company is working in collaboration with MosquitoMate and the Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District (CMAD), who have already conducted a similar “sterile insect technique” (SIT). In 2016, they released about 800,000 Wolbachia-infected males in Fresno.
The Environmental Protection Agency found the experiment “presented minimal risks to non-target organisms and the environment” and renewed the experimental use permit to continue the tests.
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.”
Verily does not plan to eradicate all mosquitoes in the area, only the Aedes aegypti species, also known as the yellow fever mosquito, which transmits diseases such as Zika, dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya.
The Aedes aegypti has only been in California since 2013 when the species pushed north and become pervasive.
“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.”