The en­forcer

JODI HOLEMAN TRIES A NEW WEAPON AS SHE FIGHTS THAT BLOODSUCKING, ZIKASPREADING INVADER, AEDES AE­GYPTI

Popular Science - - BEST OF WHAT’S NEW 2017 -

BY JA­SON LE­D­ER­MAN

THERE ARE MORE THAN 3,000 species of mos­qui­toes in the world, and if Jodi Holeman could, she’d catch one of each. She can iden­tify the bugs down to the genus, and usu­ally the species, by sight. She has only 19 kinds pinned in her col­lec­tion but car­ries plas­tic bags wher­ever she goes so she can cap­ture more. Though it’s un­likely a new va­ri­ety will pop up as she jogs through the back­woods of Clo­vis, Cal­i­for­nia, where she re­sides, Holeman says, “You don’t know what you’ll find if you don’t bother to look.”

Holeman has more than a per­sonal in­ter­est in these pests. She’s the sci­en­tific-tech­ni­cal ser­vices di­rec­tor at Fresno County’s Con­sol­i­dated Mos­quito Abate­ment District and leads the field team of De­bug Fresno, the largest ex­per­i­men­tal mos­quito ster­il­iza­tion and con­trol pro­gram in the United States. De­bug Fresno aims to de­crease the county’s in­va­sive Aedes ae­gypti pop­u­la­tion, whose fe­males bite and can carry the Zika virus and yel­low fever. The winged ag­gres­sors have not been re­spon­si­ble for any ill­ness in her area so far, but the pos­si­bil­ity of ac­tive in­fec­tion is “al­ways in the back of our minds,” she says.

County health of­fi­cials first de­tected A. ae­gypti in 2013, and since then, their num­bers have surged. The district found help this year by part­ner­ing on De­bug Fresno with Ver­ily, a health­fo­cused sub­sidiary of Al­pha­bet. Ver­ily raises batches of male

A. ae­gypti and in­fects them with the bac­te­ria Wol­bachia pip­i­en­tis. Fe­males that mate with these males pro­duce eggs that never hatch, thereby re­duc­ing the mos­quito pop­u­la­tion, num­ber of bites, and risk of hu­man ill­ness. Holeman’s team at De­bug Fresno re­leased more than 1 mil­lion Wol­bachia-in­fected males weekly for 20 weeks, au­to­mat­i­cally dis­pens­ing them out the open win­dow of a van that cruised through tar­geted neigh­bor­hoods.

Holeman has been pas­sion­ate about help­ing area res­i­dents since earn­ing a bi­ol­ogy de­gree at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity at Fresno nearly 15 years ago, when she be­gan work­ing for the district. Still, it was an un­ex­pected ca­reer path. She orig­i­nally wanted to be­come a vet­eri­nar­ian, and re­luc­tantly took an en­to­mol­ogy class to ful­fill a re­quire­ment. When the pro­fes­sor spoke of mice “scream­ing” dur­ing an ex­per­i­ment, Holeman’s per­spec­tive shifted. Bugs, un­like most crea­tures, don’t have pain re­cep­tors. En­to­mol­ogy al­lowed her to work with an­i­mals with­out caus­ing suf­fer­ing.

Holeman hopes that De­bug Fresno can hit its year-end tar­get of re­duc­ing the lo­cal fe­male A. ae­gypti pop­u­la­tion by at least 90 per­cent. The data so far looks “promis­ing,” she says. Ever the crit­ter lover, Holeman points out that in mos­quito con­trol, “we tend not to say the word ‘elim­i­nate,’” but she wouldn’t be up­set if this non­na­tive bug dis­ap­peared from the county she calls home.

“WE TEND NOT TO SAY THE WORD ‘ELIM­I­NATE,’” HOLEMAN NOTES, BUT SHE AIMS TO RE­DUCE FE­MALE AEDES AE­GYPTI BY SOME 90 PER­CENT.

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