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SCIENCE Can lab grown mosquitoes approved for release in the US to combat disease actually work?

Published 15 NOV 2017 12:23PM

Words by Holly McHugh

Lab grown mosquitos carrying a lethal weapon have been developed by a company called “MosquitoMate”, in order to fight against the invasive Asian Tiger Mosquito.

This species is infamous for carrying deadly diseases such as Zika, Dengue and Yellow Fever, responsible for huge numbers of mortalities. On the 3rd of November, The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved of this ploy to kill wild mosquitoes, which will allow the company to release their killers in 20 US states.

So how does it work?

MosquitoMate scientists developed this strategy by rearing Asian Tiger mosquitos in a lab containing a secret ingredient. A bacterium called Wolbachia pipientis. This is naturally occurring in common mosquitoes usually found in the home, from which it is extracted and injected into embryos of the lab raised creatures.

Their infected variety, called ZAP mosquitoes, are then armed and ready to spread the bacterium to their wild cousins. Most people are unaware, the mosquitos that bite which you then swat angrily, are females – males don’t actually bite! Therefore, the males are meticulously separated from the females for release.

When the infected male mosquitoes mate with wild females, their fertilized eggs don’t hatch as the bacterium prevents parental chromosomes from forming properly. To put it simply - sterilising them.

This ultimately reduces the number of Asian Tiger Mosquitos in subsequent generations.

Reproductive suppression in this manner has the potential to significantly decrease populations over a long period of time.

What’s the risk?

It sounds pretty alarming, the thought of mosquitoes containing a fatal substance being released in their thousands. Understandably, the public expressed concerns regarding the release of “genetically engineered mosquitoes” as this has not yet been officially proven to be safe or effective.

The EPA’s response was “neither the bacterium nor the mosquito have been genetically engineered in the process”.

This is a naturalistic approach as different strains of the bacterium are naturally harboured in 60 percent of all insects. This means other insects and animals (including humans) along with the environment in which they interact, are already exposed to this bacterium with no negative effects being documented.

MosquitoMate was started by researchers at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Their technique has been trialled in three states over the past three years and “has proven to decrease the wild mosquito population by 70 percent” says Stephen Dobson, founder of the company.

Will it work?

A similar approach to tackling these disease carrying mosquitos has been implemented and tested for years in Brazil, during an outbreak of the lethal Zika virus in 2015.

A company called Oxitec invented their own weaponized lab mosquitos, in an attempt to reduce numbers of wild Asian Tigers - known to be the primary carriers of the disease. However these mosquitos weren’t armed in quite the same way.

They were genetically modified to contain a gene that would prove similarly fatal.

Like MosquitoMate’s approach, these genetically modified males were released into the wild to mate with females; the deadly gene rendering larvae unable to mature. This insect control technology has been demonstrated to be highly effective at reducing these insect populations, with more than a 90 percent decrease in numbers.

Although shown to be effective, this method caused greater controversy. People were far more opposed to the idea of genetically engineered mosquitoes roaming around. As Oxitec’s technology utilises genetic modification, approval from the EPA is considerably more difficult, whereas MosquitoMate received much less public attention.

The next step

The go ahead from the EPA consequently allows the mosquito troops to be discharged in 20 US states for a maximum of 5 years, in the hope of quelling deadly wild mosquito populations.

The EPA only approved these states as they are “similar in temperature and precipitation to areas where the efficacy of the ZAP males were tested”. Trials would need to be conducted in other areas where the climate is different in order for them to also be approved.

MosquitoMate are looking to work with hotels, golf courses, homeowners and other customers to help them spread their armies. If proven successful, they hope to vamp up their efforts and release millions of lab grown ZAP males in order to suppress populations of entire cities!

The approval of this in America is a big step and if successful, could become a more widespread technique and be used in areas where mosquito borne diseases, such as malaria, contribute to an extremely high percentage of deaths.




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