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20 million bacteria-infected mosquitoes are getting released into a California city by a division of Google's parent company

Published by Business Insider on Mon, 17 Jul 2017

Verily, the life sciences branch of Alphabet (Google's parent company), has started releasing millions of mosquitoes in California.The team behind the projectmade up of scientists from Verily, biotech company MosquitoMate,and Fresno CountysConsolidated Mosquito Abatement Districtplans to seta million of the flying insects free each week for 20 weeks.The mosquitoes are beingreleasedinto two neighborhoods in Fresno, California as part of a field study for the Debug Project, an initiative that aims tor decimate certain mosquito populations.The mosquitoes were raised by a robot that can produce a million mosquitoes a week. They're all male, so they won't bite anyoneonly female mosquitoes bite humans.The bugs have been specially raised tocarry a bacteria called Wolbachia, which has an insidious effect on the reproductive process. Mosquitoes thatcarry Wolbachia canfly around normally and mate withfemales, but theeggs those females lay aren'table to hatchunless the females are infected with the same strain of the bacteria as well.Setting loose hoards of males carrying the bacteria, then, islike waging biological warfare on mosquitoes.Wolbachiais common in nature, and scientists have known since 1967 that the bacteria canmake certain mosquitoes and other insects sterile. Researchers working to fight mosquito-borne diseases havelong been interested in using the bacteriato kill off local mosquito populations, but it wasn't until this year that theydiscovered how genes in the bacteria cause mosquitoes to producenonviable eggs.The abilityto kill entire mosquito populations could significantly curbdisease transmission. Mosquitoes carry diseases like yellow fever, malaria, dengue, Zika, and chikungunya, among others. They're responsible for more than 800,000 human deaths a year, making them the most dangerous animal on the planet. And in a warming world, the range of some of these disease spreaders is expanding, making population control efforts more urgent than ever.This Wolbachia approach is promising because it doesn't requiregenetically engineering or modifying the bugsa strategy that hastriggered oppositionfrom people concerned about releasing modified genes into the wild. (Someresearchers are also working on ways to modifyWolbachia or use its sterility genes, but that's not part of this particular effort.)Wolbachia doesn't infect humans and risk assessments of these tests have said that the potential forharm is negligible.In the Fresno experimentthe largest one of its kindin the US so farthe Debug Project is targeting the Aedes aegypti mosquito, an aggressive invasive species that cantransmit nasty diseases like dengue, Zika, and chikungunya.The life cycle for these particular creatures is just over a week. As researchers flood the two areas with these infected male mosquitoes, the females living there will be less likely to find uninfected males to mate with, soeach life cycle should lead to far fewer new mosquitoes. In the end, it may be possible to eliminate the bloodsuckers from certain areas completely.If the trial issuccessful, it's likely that other relatedefforts will be carried out around the globe to target the mosquitoes that transmit malaria and other diseases. Similar tests have been carried out or are ongoing in Brazil, Vietnam, and Australia."[M]oving our work from the laboratory to the field is not only an important milestone for our group of biologists, engineers, and automation experts, but its also a critical step in bringing our long-term vision to reality," Verily scientist Jacob Crawford wrote in a blog post announcing the trial. "Field studies allow us to test our discoveries and technologies in challenging, real-world conditions and collect the necessary evidence to bring them to a broader scale."SEE ALSO:An inside look at the labs where doctors intentionally infect people with malariaJoin the conversation about this storyNOW WATCH: Here's what NASA could accomplish if it had the US military's $600 billion budget
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