The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just cleared MosquitoMate, Inc., a Lexington, KY based biotechnology company, focused on mosquito control deficiencies, invasive mosquito species, and important vectors of human diseases, to release it’s bacteria-infected mosquitoes in 20 US states and Washington DC.
First released on Nature.com,
On 3 November, the agency told biotechnology start-up MosquitoMate that it could release the bacterium Wolbachia pipientis into the environment as a tool against the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus). Lab-reared mosquitoes will deliver the bacterium to wild mosquito populations.
The decision - which the EPA has not formally announced - allows the company, which is based in Lexington, Kentucky, to release the bacteria-infected mosquitoes in 20 US states and Washington DC.
The University of Kentucky explains their roll in fostering the science behind MosquitoMate, along with the understanding of how this technology works.
According to David O’Brochta, an entomologist at the University of Maryland in Rockville, “It’s a non-chemical way of dealing with mosquitoes, so from that perspective, you’d think it would have a lot of appeal. I’m glad to see it pushed forward, as I think it could be potentially really important.”
The company’s lab-grown mosquitoes, which it calls ZAP males, are a non-biting, male Aedes albopictus (Asian Tiger mosquito) that carries a bacterium called Wolbachia. As explained on the company’s website, Wolbachia “is common throughout insects worldwide, with scientists estimating that over half of all insects naturally carry the infection”. When bacteria-infected males mate with unaffected females, it causes the females to become sterile.
The 20 approved states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia, as well as Washington, DC.
The push for MosquitoMate has been in response to mosquitoes carrying Zika and other deadly diseases. The ‘War on Zika’ began earlier this year with 20,000 MosquitoMate mosquitoes released in the Florida Keys targeting wild females that carried Zika. In July, Fresno, California stepped it up a notch and released 20 million MosquitoMate mosquitoes in the name of ‘combating Zika’.
In the video below, Fresno, California officials admit mosquitoes in the area are not actively carrying dangerous diseases such as Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya, but for all intensive purposes they want to “stay ahead” of the curve...
However, few have focused on the Risks of Wolbachia mosquito control and in one shocking development this is uncharted territory. Sciencemag.org makes a very good point “few have focused on the probability of Wolbachia strains being transferred to other insects and the potential environmental and economic impacts .” The article goes on to say Wolbachia strains are capable of being transferred across horizontally among distant related arthropods. In addition, some parasites are able to carry Wolbachia strain to other species. The article makes another great point, of the actual shift of a Wolbachia host to native species is complex and poorly understood.
Since Wolbachia strain is found in nature and not genetically modified. MosquitoMate is not applicable to The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety- a United Nations safety regulation for transfer, handling, and use of genetically modified organisms signed by 170 countries. As far as we are aware, there are no countries that have regulation on Wolbachia infected organisms, so this is a first, hence uncharted territories.
The Event Chronicle asks: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
- What if the mosquitos are sorted incorrectly? Do you really think that out of 20 million mosquitos, nary a biting female will get through the sorting process?
- What if the Wolbachia mutates? Something that is not harmful now could morph into something far worse than Zika.
- What if scientists believe that this gives them innate permission to conduct “field studies” of other things? Oh…wait. Apparently, they already feel they don’t require our permission to turn our neighborhoods into test facilities.