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Google’s life-science team to release 20 million mosquitoes in Fresno

Introducing Debug Fresno
It may sound counterintuitive, but Alphabet’s life sciences unit Verily is releasing about 20 million mosquitoes in Fresno, California in order to fight Zika, the mosquito-borne illness. It’s part of Verily’s Debug Project, an initiative announced last October with the mission of reducing “the devastating global health impact that disease-carrying mosquitoes inflict on people around the world.” And now, Verily is launching Debug Fresno, the company’s first field study in the U.S. that will test a mosquito control method that involves sterile insect technique.

In essence, the 20 million mosquitoes Verily is releasing are all sterile males that have been treated with Wolbachia, a naturally occurring bacterium. The test is said to be the largest release of sterile male mosquitoes in the U.S. thus far. Over the next 20 weeks, these bugs will be released in two neighborhoods around 300 acres large. The hope is that when these sterile males mate with wild females, which can carry and transmit a number of diseases including Zika, dengue, and chikungunya, the resulting eggs will not hatch. Verily will determine the success of its test by comparing the adult population density and egg hatching of this particular kind of mosquito in the targeted neighborhoods to two control neighborhoods.

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And don’t worry — male mosquitoes do not bite, so even though you might be seeing more of these critters around, you won’t be itching as a result.

Linus Upson, a senior engineer at Verily, told the MIT Technology Review that this could ultimately become a cost effective way to control mosquito populations, and get rid of diseases (though he didn’t say how much exactly this experiment actually costs). “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,” he said. “We want to show this can work in different kinds of environments,” he told the magazine.

Alphabet, the holding company in charge of Google, rebranded its Google Life Sciences team as Verily at the end of 2015, and said the team would move away from Google and become its own independent division.

So look out, Fresno. You may hear a lot more buzzing in the coming weeks, but rest assured, it’s all for good purpose.