Google's science unit to target Zika carrying insects with 20m mosquitoes

Frederick Owens
July 21, 2017

It sounds like the premise of a bad science-fiction film: Google's parent company is flooding part of central California with millions of bacteria-infected mosquitoes incubated by robots.

Mosquitoes are among the deadliest animals on Earth; the Aedes aegypti species carries diseases like dengue, Zika, yellow fever, and chikungunya.

The project, called Debug Fresno, will launch this Friday, July 21. So far, 1 million of the mosquitoes have been set free, all of which are male, but Verily is aiming to release 1 million every week for a total of 20 weeks.

The mosquitoes were not genetically modified, but instead infected with naturally occurring bacteria called Wolbachia.

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"We are in particular looking at interfering RNA which would target specifically the mosquitoes and not harm anything else that would get into that trap, whether it be humans or other insects because of the specific DNA sequences in the mosquito that are different than anything else that might come in contact with the insecticide", she says.

100,000 live mosquitoes, all male, all incapable of producing offspring [are released daily in Fresno, California].

"Over time, we hope to see a steep decline in the presence of Aedes aegypti in these communities", he added. If successful, the results will demonstrate the technique can be implemented on a greater scale. When a Wolbachia-carrying male mates with a wild, local female, none of their offspring will be able to hatch. The mosquitoes will be released via Verily's bug-releasing van and its automated device, saving time and reducing the man power needed. The mosquitoes first entered the Fresno area in 2013.

The ultimate goal is to be able to make more mosquito factories, ready to ship all over the world whenever a new mosquito-borne disease strikes.

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