Google company Verily built a robot that will unleash 20 million sterile mosquitoes on California

Google company Verily built a robot that will unleash 20 million sterile mosquitoes on California
An Aedes aegypti mosquito known to carry the Zika virus is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz Institute in Recife, Brazil.
Source: Felipe Dana/AP
An Aedes aegypti mosquito known to carry the Zika virus is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz Institute in Recife, Brazil.
Source: Felipe Dana/AP

In the future, scientists may combat the world’s mosquito problem by — get this — unleashing millions more of them.

Mosquitoes are “the greatest menace” of all disease-spreading bugs, according to the World Health Organization. About 40% of the entire world population is at risk of contracting malaria, which causes up to 2.7 million deaths a year. Other mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue, yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis, affect millions of people around the world.

Luiza, a nearly 1-year-old baby born with microcephaly, sleeps under a mosquito net in her home in Santa Cruz do Capibaribe, Brazil.
Source: Felipe Dana/AP

To help solve this problem, researchers at the science company Verily (which is owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company) created an automated lab that raises infertile mosquitoes and infects them with a naturally occurring, sterilizing bacteria called Wolbachia.

The idea is that female mosquitoes will then produce eggs that can neither develop nor hatch. If it works, we could someday live in a world that’s completely eradicated of all mosquitoes harboring dangerous illnesses.

Verily just put its mosquitoes to a large-scale test

Scientists are raising a batch of 20 million lab-raised males — which don’t bite humans — and releasing them into the Fresno County, California, area. Some batches have already been released.

“If we really want to be able to help people globally, we need to be able to produce a lot of mosquitoes, distribute them to where they need to be and measure the populations at very, very low costs,” Linus Upson, a senior engineer at Verily, told MIT Technology Review.

In recent years, an invasive species of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti appeared in California’s central valley, eventually spreading to Fresno. Future field studies will reveal whether or not Verily’s plan actually reduced the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes on a local scale.

If their experiment works, it could help combat one of the world’s largest health epidemics. And that’s worth buzzing about.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Kelly Kasulis

Kelly Kasulis is a journalist covering tech and science for Mic. Follow her on Twitter: @KasulisK.

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