A giant technology company will release up to 20 million bacteria-filled, buzzing mosquitoes this summer in Fresno, California. That’s supposed to be a good thing. The bug campaign, which starts Friday, is part of a plan by Alphabet Inc.’s Verily Life Sciences unit. Reared by machines, the male mosquitoes are infected with a bacteria that, while harmless to humans, creates nonhatching dead eggs when they mate with wild females — hopefully cutting the mosquito population and the transmission of the diseases they carry. The swarm’s target is Aedes aegypti, a mosquito breed that carries viruses like zika, dengue, and chikungunya. They’re an invasive species in California’s Central Valley, first arriving in Fresno in 2013.
After becoming a standalone Alphabet division in 2015, Verily has grown rapidly, taking on numerous health technology projects, partnering with the drug industry and raising significant funds including $800 million from Singapore investment firm Temasek Holdings Ltd. While the mosquito project, called Debug, won’t generate revenue in the near-term, it’s a chance for Verily to show off its technical prowess in the health-care field.
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“If we can show that this technique can work, I’m confident we can make it a sustainable business because the burden of these mosquitoes is enormous,” said Verily engineering chief Linus Upson, who helped create Google’s Chrome web browser and now leads Debug.
Bugs in Bugs
Verily’s mosquitoes aren’t genetically modified. They’re infected with a naturally occurring bacteria called Wolbachia. When infected male mosquitoes mate with wild females, they create nonviable eggs, resulting in population decline over time. A bonus: Male mosquitoes don’t bite, so Fresno residents won’t be spending the summer itching more than normal.
Verily isn’t the first to use Wolbachia mosquitoes for disease control. Organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been working on the bugs for more than a decade, running pilot projects in countries including Indonesia and Brazil. Verily’s contribution has been to create machines that automatically rear, count, and sort the mosquitoes by sex, making it possible to create vast quantities for large-scale projects. The Fresno project will be the biggest U.S. release of sterile mosquitoes to date, Verily says.
A minimum ratio of seven Wolbachia mosquitoes to one wild male mosquito is needed to control the population, according to Steve Mulligan, district manager of the Consolidate Mosquito Abatement District, which includes the parts of Fresno in this project.
Verily is planning to release 1 million mosquitoes a week over a 20-week period across two 300-acre neighborhoods. The company’s bug-releasing van will start traveling the streets of Fancher Creek, a neighborhood in Fresno County, on Friday.