20 million sterile mosquitoes to be released in California

Verily, the life science unit from Alphabet, Google's parent company, announced the official launch of Debug Fresno, the first stage in its Debug Project. Giant Technology company will release up to 20 million bacteria-filled, buzzing mosquitoes this summer in Fresno, California an attempt to fight disease.

Wolbachia is common in nature, and scientists have known since 1967 that the bacteria can make certain mosquitoes and other insects sterile. Verily says it is using custom-built software algorithms and robots to ramp up the number of mosquitoes it's able to grow and release.

With Debug Fresno, the Debug Project and Verily are testing a "potential mosquito control method using sterile insect technique". It will be releasing in the wild 20 million mosquitoes, all of them sterile male specimens. Infected male mosquitoes will still naturally mate with females, but the resulting eggs will not hatch. They're all male, so they won't bite anyone - only female mosquitoes bite humans. The company has created an automated sex-sorting process to lower the risk of females ending up in the mix.

A million mosquitoes will be released over a 20-week period.

Modified mosquitoes such as those being released by Verily are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), coming under the heading of "microbial pest control".

The Debug Project will be the biggest United States study to set free mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, a common reproductive parasite. He declined to give any cost estimates.

This specific mosquito is an effective vector for carrying diseases like dengue fever, Zika and chikungunya, with these blood-borne viruses reproduced in the mosquito's stomach, spreading with bites.

"Wolbachia is largely benign for mosquitoes and the environment, although it may reduce the insects' egg production". After a few generations, the mosquito population is all but extinct.

This campaign has a simple idea where these swarms of male mosquitoes are reared by machines and they are infected with a harmless bacteria. Based on the results of an ecological risk assessment made in 2016, EPA said that the altered mosquitoes neither cause harmful effects on other organisms including endangered species. This large field study is just the first of several planned, with another rolling out in Australia later in the year in conjunction with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific Research Organization (CSIRO). Upson said that the burden of these mosquitoes is huge and if this technology works, a sustainable business can come out of it.

Vanessa Coleman

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