The damaging effects of the Zika virus on newborns, has created an urgent need to eliminate its source. The virus is especially dangerous because most adults show no symptoms when affected, and pregnant mothers pass it on to their babies unknowingly. The Zika virus, like many others, is spread by mosquitos. Researchers have found that they can decrease the spread of the disease by getting rid of the carrier. They have started to release infertile male mosquitos into the environment, which then mate with the deadly female mosquitos, who are unable to produce offspring. The method has already been used by several countries to decrease the spread of mosquito-borne viruses. The success rate in these areas has been quite high and their mosquito population is slowly dying out.
Verily is a branch of Google’s parent company, Alphabet that conducts scientific research. The department has developed a robot that is able to raise mosquitos in a lab environment. The robot is equipped with custom built machinery that allows it to raise up to one million mosquitos per week. The males are then separated from the females, because they don’t bite humans. They are infected with a naturally occurring bacteria, Wolbachia, that causes their infertility. The Verily project has already begun its first widespread use of the experiment, by releasing 20 million mosquitos into Fresno County, California.
The project has been named ‘Debug,’ and aims to use technology to increase the number of sterile bugs being released into the environment. The main methods that it is promoting are bug raising robots, bug tracking sensors and bug sorting algorithms. The mosquito is the animal that causes the highest number of human deaths each year. Verily aim to help significantly decrease, and eventually completely eradicate, the spread of these dangerous mosquito-borne diseases, such as Dengue Fever and Zika.
This is the first mosquito release project in the United States that is being conducted using autonomous methods. Verily’s system allows for the release of more mosquitos, in a significantly shorter time period, than other methods which are conducted manually. The Fresno County project is the largest one that has been attempted thus far. Linus Upson, a Verily senior engineer, said that to help a larger number of people, the mosquitos need to be more widely distributed and monitored at a reasonable cost. The company is planning to recreate their Fresno County project in Australia later this year, to show that the procedure can be successful in different climates and areas.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for regulating the mosquitos that are released by Verily. Under the ‘microbial pest control’ requirement, the EPA has concluded that altered mosquitos, such as those being released by Verily, currently pose no threat to the environment.