While Google may have changed the face of the digital world beyond recognition, its parent company has plans to extend its reach into the real one too. In a bid to help cut the rate of disease transmission, Verily is set to release 20 million bacteria-infected male mosquitoes in central California.
The current release is actually being carried out by a sister company of the tech giant Google. As part of the life sciences division at Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Verily is looking into how to curtail the population of mosquitoes most likely to carry dangerous diseases within California. They have focused their attention on the Aedes aegypti species, which is known to be a vector for yellow fever, dengue fever, chikungunya, and even Zika.
While these diseases are not a current threat to people in California, it is predicted that they will be in the future. As the climate shifts, the mosquitoes and the diseases they carry will spread too. The release, known as Debug Fresno, has taken place in Fresno. 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 in the trial are not actually genetically modified. Instead, they themselves are infected with a naturally occurring bacteria that makes some insects, such as the A. aegypti mosquito, sterile. This means the trial is a form of biological control, rather than genetically modified organisms being released into the environment, though past biological pest control experiments have had fairly mixed results.
The bacteria in question is a parasitic microorganism known as Wolbachia pipientis. It is thought to be one of the most common pathogens on the planet to alter the reproductive system of insects, as it can infect up to 76 percent of insects studied, although how damaging it is varies from species to species. When male mosquitoes are infected, it is known to make them sterile.
It is hoped that if enough infected males are released into the wild, then all the males that wild females mate with will also be sterile. This means the number of the insects should be cut dramatically. This is why the project needs to release such large numbers of the insects over a period of time.
This is not the first time that sterile males have been trialed as a way to cut wild mosquito populations, and it has even been done before in Fresno. This is, however, a marked step up on that previous experiment, and we’ll have to wait to see how it goes.