MosquitoMate, a Kentucky company will release 40,000 mosquitoes in July to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne disease like Zika and dengue. The male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will be infected with Wolbachia bacteria that will make them disastrous to uninfected wild females once they mate. Their offspring will die before hatching.
Wolbachia bacteria will make male mosquitoes biologically incompatible with uninfected females. Because of incompatibility, infected male mosquitoes will shrink the local population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the area.
Aedes aegypti is a species of mosquito that spreads yellow fever, chikungunya viruses, and Zika, which broke out in Miami last year. A mosquito can also carry dengue virus that already made appearance in Key West over the past decade, with one case in 2016.
Biologists are still exploring how mosquitoes infected with strains of Wolbachia bacteria can sabotage the spread of such viruses. Wolbachia is naturally found in various ants, butterflies, and many other arthropods. Scientists were able to infect mosquitoes with the bacteria without genetically modifying either species. Researchers used a vanishingly slender glass needle to poke the bacteria into mosquito eggs. Instead of suppressing mosquitoes and risking a comeback, the approach relies on the bacteria to spread and maintain their numbers.
Entomologist, Stephen Dobson at the University of Kentucky in Lexington said, it’s a population-crashing approach. Because male mosquitoes are released, they don’t bite which might seem acceptable to people. It’s a strategy to replace the mosquito population with a safer one.
Since the bacterial infection can sweep mosquito population extraordinarily fast, the group will also release females too with the bacterial infection. Wolbachia-carrying males can mate with the infected female; this will make their young carry the bacteria too.
Andrea Leal, executive director of the control district said the species Aedes aegypti is difficult to control since it lives under or near human homes and the use of heavy pesticides are restricted. Its larvae can grow even in mere bottle-capfuls of rainwater and can become a public health menace.
The only problems that researchers see with this strategy are if viruses such as Zika or dengue develop resistance to Wolbachia-infected cells. To fight resistance, the group plans to release mosquitoes with a new combination of Wolbachia strains to replace ones that are losing effectiveness.
So far, MosquitoMate has already tested two other species of mosquitoes: Ae. polynesiensis on Pacific Islands that carries lymphatic filariasis that causes elephantine swellings, and Ae. albopictus, an aggressively biting tiger mosquito that spreads virus and can render any U.S. backyards uninhabitable.
Keys’ residents are looking forward to seeing a big drop in the mosquito population.