Google’s sis­ter com­pany sets out to bug mosquitoes

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

IT be­he­moth Google and its as­so­ci­ated busi­nesses have moved into a dizzy­ing ar­ray of en­ter­prises. Now Ver­ily, the life sciences di­vi­sion of Google hold­ing com­pany Al­pha­bet, is tak­ing a swat at mosquitoes.

In a bid to de­crease the skeeter pop­u­la­tion in Fresno County, Calif., Ver­ily this month be­gan re­leas­ing 1 mil­lion male mosquitoes ev­ery week for 20 weeks. But don’t bug out, it’s less itchy than it sounds. De­bug Fresno is a field study that aims to con­trol the Aedes ae­gypti mos­quito pop­u­la­tion in the cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia county; that species is known to carry yel­low fever, Zika, dengue fever and chikun­gunya, although none of these dis­eases is cur­rently spread­ing in Fresno. Ver­ily is work­ing with Fresno’s Con­sol­i­dated Mos­quito Abate­ment Dis­trict by re­leas­ing male mos­qui­tos that have been ren­dered ster­ile by a bac­te­ria called Wol­bachia pip­i­en­tis. So the bugs haven’t been ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied, but in­stead in­fected with a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring bac­te­ria as a form of bi­o­log­i­cal pest con­trol.

If enough fe­males mate with the in­fected males, then the pop­u­la­tion should drop. Wol­bachia-in­fected males don’t bite and can’t trans­mit the bac­te­ria to fe­males so res­i­dents shouldn’t be both­ered by the ex­tra bugs, and it won’t wipe out the en­tire pop­u­la­tion.

Ster­ile in­sect tech­niques are noth­ing new. They were first de­vel­oped in the 1950s and are cur­rently be­ing used in Cal­i­for­nia to con­trol the Mediter­ranean fruit fly. A re­cent Aus­tralian study us­ing Wol­bachia-in­fected mosquitoes showed that re­leas­ing the bugs in suit­able and large enough lo­ca­tions can sig­nif­i­cantly af­fect in­sect pop­u­la­tions in cities. The Flor­ida Keys Mos­quito Con­trol Dis­trict also re­cently be­gan test­ing the tech­nique by re­leas­ing 20,000 Wol­bachia-in­fected males.

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