(Bloomberg) – Silicon Valley researchers are attacking flying bloodsuckers in Fresno County, California. This is the first salvo in the unlikely war for the parent of Google Alphabet Inc: the destruction of diseases transmitted through mosquitoes all over the world.
White high-quality Mercedes van sneaks through suburban ruins and strip-teles like a swarm of men Aedes aegypti mosquitoes fly out of a black plastic tube in the window of the passenger window. These pests are tiny and with a wingspan of just a few millimeters, but invisible.
“Do you hear this sound?” Says Kathleen Parks, spokesman for “Truly Life Sciences,” Alphabet. She pulls the van in her car, the windows down. "How duh-duh-duh? This is a release of mosquitoes.
Jacob Crawford, the supreme scientist who rides with Parks, begins to describe a mosquito control technique with dazzling potential. These specific parasites, he explains, were bred in the ultra-high-tech environment of the automated breeding system of Verily mosquitoes, located 200 miles from South San Francisco. They were infected with Wolbachia, a common bacterium. When these 80,000 laboratory-bred infected Wolbachia, male mosquitoes mate with their female colleagues in the wild, the result is the destruction of invisibility: the offspring never hatch.
Better make it 79999. “One just hit the windshield,” says Crawford.
Mosquito control is serious material for the Alphabet, although it is just one of many of the company's forays into health and life sciences. Through Truly and other industries of the company, Alphabet explores smart contact lenses, artificial intelligence applications for healthcare and molecular aging mechanisms. Just this month, Google hired Geisinger Health CEO David Feinberg to oversee his many health initiatives.
Truly protects its technology. But it is reasonable to assume that if he manages to easily and cheaply make control over mosquitoes, he may have a good deal on his hands: many governments and businesses around the world may be happy to pay to solve problems with mosquitoes.
In the arid climate of the Central Valley of California, A. aegypti hateful for their angry bite. But there, at least, they usually do not transmit the disease. Other places are not so lucky. Mosquito species are among the deadliest diseases in the world, such as dengue and chikungunya in the tropics and subtropics. The diseases that he bites kills tens of thousands of people every year, infect millions of people. Releasing Wolbachia infected mosquitoes into the wild can eventually destroy entire populations of deadly mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.
At the very least, this is a plan if field trials begin in California. Every morning during the mosquito season, which runs from April to November, a van decorated with a “Debug Fresno” cruises along leafy paths full of high-rise buildings. At predefined locations, the algorithm automatically releases carefully calculated numbers of mosquitoes, counting each individual insect with a laser when it leaves.
As the efforts to eradicate diseases caused by mosquitoes intensify, several different approaches to the problem have emerged. Only Bill Gates promised to allocate more than $ 1 billion for technologies that can help eradicate malaria, including controversial attempts to genetically modify mosquitoes. The Truth's approach is based on a variation of a very old strategy known as the sterile insect technique, in which the population is gradually destroyed, hindering the ability to reproduce.
It is unclear what will happen if the mosquitoes that cause disease in the world disappear. The ecological role that mosquitoes play has not been thoroughly studied, although some scientists suggest that you can be fine with them. But it is clear that A. aegypti has no business in fresno district. Relatives to warmer, more humid climates, no one knows where they came from when they first appeared in 2013. All this is that they spread very quickly.
“After we discovered this, we made huge and large-scale efforts to prevent the creation and elimination of this mosquito,” said Jodi Holeman, director of scientific services for the Fresno County Mosquito Conservation District. "We were not successful in any form, form or form."
The county has gone from the fact that he did not have a problem with mosquitoes in general, so that residents avoid their courtyards and entrances. Unlike most mosquitoes, A. aegypti lives and breeds in places inhabited by people, laying eggs in, say, a few drops of stagnant water at the bottom of a glass left on the balcony, and then hides under beds and in closets, biting legs and ankles. This greatly complicates the struggle. Moving from house to door and begging residents to dump stagnant water did not cut it, so in 2016 Fresno teamed up with scientist Stephen Dobson and his company MosquitoMate.
It was the Dobson lab, which figured out how to infect mosquitoes with the Wolbachia form, which differs from the type of bacteria that mosquitoes usually carry. This makes eggs non-viable. MosquitoMate makes two types of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, A. aegypti and Aedes albopictusFresno became one of his test sites.
Fresno's initial tests were for the first time male A. aegypti infected by bacteria ever released in the United States. The following year, indeed, Irilli intervened to help develop these efforts, bringing more advanced technologies into the process of reproduction and liberation, which they hoped would eventually make the battle mosquitoes massive.
It seems to work. This year, truly, the second release season has been signed. Two "Truly Trucks" are building four different quarters, hitting more than 3,000 homes. In six months, the company released more than 15 million mosquitoes. The results of 2017 calculated that the biting mosquito population decreased by two thirds. This year, changes in the program have reduced the mosquito population by a whopping 95 percent. The second project, Verily in Innisfail, Australia, which ended in June, reduced the mosquito population by 80 percent. This bodes well for eventually bringing technology to other parts of the world, devastated not only by itchy ankles, but also by a deadly disease.
At first, truly, leaders were concerned about the community’s resistance to dealing with bugs with a lot of bugs. Thus, the company created an outsourcing stand with a cage full of male mosquitoes that people could put in their hands to find out that the males do not bite. (Only mosquito bites in women, so this and similar projects are trying to release only men).
“We really appreciate being here,” said Clifford Lopez, a resident. "I will brag to people about how I can sit on the porch now, not hit."
In the original test video you can see Choleman, a Fresno district scientist gently blowing mosquitoes out of the tube. Now the release van is filled with a patented technology, including software that accurately determines which areas of neighboring mosquitoes should be released, and a laser sensitive enough to count each one as it exits, generating a lot of data that can later be used to improve – customize the process.
At Verily's headquarters, the factory, where mosquitoes are raised, includes even more automation. After the eggs are laid, the robots take the mosquitoes into adulthood, packing them in containers filled with water and air, feeding them and keeping them warm. Other robots sort them by gender, first by size (women are larger), and then optically using proprietary technology. Mosquitoes are given a numeric identifier that allows them to be tracked from the state of the egg to the specific GPS coordinate where they are released.
With the end of the season this year, the company has not yet decided whether it will continue to expand the program next year. Truly, I would not say how much it costs to produce and produce tens of thousands of mosquitoes every day, but this is a safe bet that this is still an expensive proposition.
“The key part is trying to make such a program in a very affordable and efficient way,” says Crawford, a convinced scientist, “so that we can go to places where there is not much money. "