Google’s sister company sets out to bug mosquitoes
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.