Google’s arch nemeses are mosquitoes in California

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is waging biological warfare against millions of California mosquitoes.

The company’s life sciences branch Verily teamed up with biotech company MosquitoMate and a California mosquito control organisation for the Debug Project, a Verily initiative focused on reducing the impact disease-carrying mosquitoes have on humans.

Debug Fresno, the cordial name of Verily’s biological war, is the project’s largest US field study. It’s staged in two neighbourhoods in Fresno, California over a 20-week period.

For the study, a robot developed by Verily will raise one million male mosquitoes per week — an important distinction since only female mosquitoes bite humans. The mosquitoes will be released weekly, using on-the-ground devices and an algorithm that ensures they’re distributed evenly.

The bugs for Debug Fresno were also engineered to carry the bacteria Wolbachia, which hinders the reproductive process. 

When a male mosquito carrying Wolbachia mates with a female mosquito, the eggs the female lay can’t hatch — unless the female also carries the bacteria. The study is specifically targeting the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a species known to carry diseases such as dengue, Zika and chikungunya.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito only has a week-long life cycle. If the area is flooded with the cyber-born and infertile bugs, the female is likely to have a difficult time finding an uninfected and fertile mate during her life, leading to fewer offspring. This could drastically reduce — or even eliminate — the existing population.

The bacteria, though, doesn’t infect humans and its potential for harm is minimal, according to risk assessment tests. But you may be more curious about the possible environmental implications of attempting to rid an area of a species than potential human harm.

Well, according to most scientists, there’s not much to be afraid of. The local ecosystem doesn’t rely on Aedi aegypti too much: they don’t pollinate crops and aren’t a main food source for any other animal in the area. In fact, the malignant mosquitoes only appeared in Fresno about four years ago, according to TechCrunch.  

The US Environmental Protection Agency also officially recognises the process as “microbial pest control” and found that altered mosquitoes are not expected to cause harmful effects in a 2016 ecological risk assessment.

If Debug Fresno is successful, its methods could be applied in communities where diseases such as Zike, dengue and chikungunya are endemic — so say your last goodbyes to Aedes aegypti mosquitoes everywhere.

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