Verily, the life sciences branch of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), has started releasing millions of mosquitoes in California.
The team behind the project — made up of scientists from Verily, biotech company MosquitoMate, and Fresno County’s Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District — plans to set a million of the flying insects free each week for 20 weeks.
The mosquitoes are being released into two neighborhoods in Fresno, California, as part of a field study for the Debug Project, an initiative that aims to 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 anyone — only female mosquitoes bite humans.
The bugs have been specially raised to carry a bacteria called Wolbachia, which has an insidious effect on the reproductive process. Mosquitoes that carry Wolbachia can fly around normally and mate with females, but the eggs those females lay aren’t able to hatch — unless the females are infected with the same strain of the bacteria as well.
Setting loose hoards of males carrying the bacteria, then, is like waging biological warfare on mosquitoes.
Wolbachia is common in nature, and scientists have known since 1967 that the bacteria can make certain mosquitoes and other insects sterile. Researchers working to fight mosquito-borne diseases have long been interested in using the bacteria to kill off local mosquito populations, but it wasn’t until this year that they discovered how genes in the bacteria cause mosquitoes to produce nonviable eggs.
The ability to kill entire mosquito populations could significantly curb disease 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…