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MosquitoMate

Breeding more bloodsucking creatures could help reduce mosquito-borne diseases

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What's itchy and red all over?

You guessed it: mosquito bites.

Well, those welts may now become more infrequent thanks to a new technology recently approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in dealing with Asian Tiger Mosquito--the bloodsucking creatures that have the ability to carry deadly diseases like Zika and Dengue Fever.

The biological and chemical-free approach was developed by a Kentucky-based company called MosquitoMate. By first injecting a strain of bacterium called Wolbachia into the male species, researchers say they can safely suppress the overall breeding behavior of the Asian Tiger Mosquitoes. The infected male mosquitoes are released into the environment with the primary goal of mating with female mosquitoes, which are the ones that bite humans.

"Once a male has a different strain, it makes the compatibility with the other sex, at least from male to female, incompatible and they can't mate."
Dr. Patrick Kelly, field operations manager at MosquitoMate

That means, if male-infected mosquitoes mate with female mosquitoes, offspring cannot be produced.

During trial testing, MosquitoMate researchers said the Wolbachia treatment reduced the invasive population in areas from anywhere between 70 and 90 percent. Kelly explained that the extent of the technology's success depends on its preemptive approach--releasing Wolbachia-treated males into the environment before the warm weather serves as a catalyst to the breeding season.

The overall process of injecting the male species with the bacterium is extremely controlled in a lab setting, Kelly continued. Think of it as an assembly-line process.

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"After you've done the micro injections, and we have a stable line of mosquitoes that are harboring Wolbachia, all it is just we have these mesh screens, and we have both males and females in them," Kelly said. "We have a little cup of water that has a piece of paper in it, and what it does, the mosquitoes will mate within the chambers. The females will go to the water, and with the paper there, they'll deposit their eggs. So after a certain time, we just pull the eggs, the paper out, and then we set that up and let the eggs hatch and grow the larvae."

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After the eggs hatch, the mosquitoes grow in containers until they're ready to be released. Depending on the environment and climate, Kelly said that as many as one million mosquitoes can be released per week. He admitted that may sound like a lot, but he said there's no cause for concern.

"You're not going to see these swarms of mosquitoes just everywhere. You almost don't even realize that a million mosquitoes just got released. They quickly go out. They don't bother humans, and they don't bother other animals. They mostly go right into the secluded habitats where they're looking to mate."
Dr. Kelly

The Wolbachia-treated males are still susceptible to vulnerabilities. For example, if your neighbor is using a pesticide-mosquito killer to rid insects from his yard, those chemicals still have the ability to kill the male mosquitoes, which inadvertently reverses the entire process. But Kelly said that, even if the male mosquitoes are killed by other methods, they still support the overall health of the broader ecosystem by pollinating gardens and serving as food to other insects and fish.

"...there's no harm to other insects when we are releasing these males into the environment," Kelly reassured. "There's no effect on other mosquito species. There's no effect on other insects, om the environment. This is a very natural occuring phenomenon that we've just been able to harness to reduce this specific, nuisance annoying mosquito."

As simple and natural as the technology may be, Kelly said that this approach has the ability to revolutionize public health on an international scale, especially in places like Brazil where mosquito-borne diseases are rampant.

"It's very sad when you hear these people down there," he added. "They're talking about Zika and Dengue and Yellow Fever--they talk about these viruses like the common cold. And, unfortunately, they don't have a lot of support, or education, and so without that support and education, a lot of people don't know what to do to help reduce these diseases. For the future, I think it what will be amazing for us is if we start looking internationally, really helping these people that are living in these countries that have anemic local transmission all year around."

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