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Why Alphabet has released millions of mosquitoes in densely populated cities

Looking to the future: At one point, Alphabet can work to exterminate all mosquitoes globally. The first results of testing for release of infected specimens that were unable to reproduce were extremely positive. The environmental effects are not yet well understood.

In Fresno County, California, mosquitoes have become an unwanted nuisance. In other parts of the world, blood-borne pests carry deadly diseases that kill more than one million people each year. So why exactly does Alphabet regularly release hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes?

Alphabet circulates in vans equipped with tubes containing male mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, a common form of bacteria. The vans equipped with technology have computers with software to determine the optimal area for the release of swarms and can count each insect deployed by laser. When mating with other mosquitoes, the offspring will be unable to hatch, thus eliminating future generations.

Growing mosquitoes and infecting them en masse is surprisingly easy. The process was fully automated by Verily, the life sciences subsidiary of Alphabet. The robots pack the insects with water and air into containers keeping them warm. Each mosquito is assigned a unique identifier allowing it to follow its journey from the egg to its full maturity, then the GPS location of its release.

In 2017, the first tests of Verily showed extremely promising results. This year, two vans covered more than 3,000 homes, releasing more than 15 million mosquitoes. In the 2017 trials, mosquito populations declined by more than two-thirds. Improvements to the process have reduced the population by 95% this year. Another trial was conducted in Innisfail, Australia, where the population was reduced by 80%.

Although the consequences of decimation of the entire world population of mosquitoes are not yet well understood, there is reason to believe that a significant reduction in the number would be beneficial. In truth, he has not been willing to disclose the cost of his process, but rest assured that it is quite expensive. However, the fight against malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases is not cheap either, so that there may be viable tradeoffs.

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