The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the release of lab-grown Asian tiger mosquitoes designed to kill other disease-bearing mosquitoes in 20 states and the nation’s capital by summer 2018.
Millions of male mosquitoes infected with the bacteria Wolbachia pipienti will be released into the environment to breed with other mosquitoes. The bacteria introduced to the mosquitoes helps effectively sterilize males by interfering with their ability to pass on their paternal genes. Scientists hope to reduce the population over time by flooding the area with male mosquitoes that cannot reproduce, according to Gizmodo.
The Asian tiger mosquito can spread diseases like West Nile virus and dengue fever. The mosquito is primarily found in the south-east United States, with some found in the midwest and up the east coast.
West Nile virus is the most common disease spread by mosquitoes in the United States, according to Vector Disease Control International. There were 94 deaths associated with West Nile virus in the United States in 2016.
Male mosquitoes don’t bite humans, which means the Wolbachia pipienti bacteria will not be spread to local human populations, according to MosquitoMate, the company that designed and raised the mosquitoes.
MosquitoMate is a biotech company founded in Kentucky in 2010 by CEO and President Stephen Dodson.
Dodson said the mosquitoes would first be released in Lexington then nearby metro areas, with a goal of ultimately releasing the mosquitoes nationwide, according to Gizmodo. However, the company is still working on how to efficiently separate male mosquitoes from female mosquitoes in the lab, a task Dodson said was time-consuming and inefficient.
He also said the company was working on adapting the technique for another species of mosquito – Aedes aegypti, the mosquito most infamous for spreading Zika, yellow fever and other devastating diseases.
The EPA voted to allow MosquitoMate to release its so-called ‘ZAP’ males only in states with a similar climate to its testing grounds in Kentucky, leaving out large swaths of the south-east United States were Asian tiger mosquitoes primarily reside, according to the journal Nature.
Mosquitoes that kill mosquitoes have been employed in the past using genetically modified mosquitoes or pesticide-based treatments. China and Brazil have both implemented GMO mosquitoes to kill off the native population, according to CNET. MosquitoMate claims to be a safer alternative by employing no pesticides or GMOs in its technique.
In Florida, residents opposed a British biotech company’s attempts to release genetically modified mosquitoes which also help get rid of ants. Oxitec was unable to perform open-air tests due to widespread protests from Florida Keys residents.
Researchers from Michigan State University and Sun Yat-sen University are working together to test a similar experiment in Guangzhou, China, releasing 5 million mosquitoes weekly to help bring down mosquito populations in the wild, according to Nature.