Can Google’s Debug Project Actually Get Rid of Mosquitoes?

The disease-carrying ones, at least

Mosquito biting a human
Verily's Debug project wants to eliminate disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Photo: WikiImages from Pixabay
By Alex Lauer / April 9, 2020 6:00 am

Here are some fun facts about mosquitoes you can impress your friends with on tonight’s Zoom call: Only the females bite, they’re the deadliest insect in the world (killing more people annually than every animal combined), and the company that has the best chance of doing something about it isn’t Off! Repellent, but Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. 

For the last few years, Verily, a life sciences research organization under the Alphabet umbrella, has been running a project to eliminate disease-carrying mosquitoes called Debug. While it has mostly run under the radar (despite the American obsession with swatting, spraying and otherwise murdering mosquitoes), the project might soon see a boost because, according to recently published findings, it seems to be working. 

As Bloomberg reported, a paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology this week details Verily’s success “in nearly eliminating [mosquitoes] from three test sites in California’s Central Valley.”

Debug’s experiments works like this: The lab breeds male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, infects them with Wolbachia bacteria which causes sterility, then releases them to mate with the disease-carrying, biting females. 

If this sounds like the beginning of one of those biowarfare movies where an all-powerful tech company with good intentions accidentally creates a super species that turns on them, and the rest of humanity, there’s reason to chill out and trust Verily’s process.

“Infecting mosquitoes with Wolbachia, which occurs naturally in some mosquito species, is a popular approach rooted in an old insect control strategy called sterile insect technique,” writes Bloomberg. In other words, they’re adding technological know-how and perfecting a proven strategy, rather than releasing some foreign mega mosquito. 

Verily’s Debug, which got its start in California in conjunction with a company called MosquitoMate, hopes to expand soon. They also have a presence in Singapore and Australia, and hope to move to South America and the Caribbean.

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