EPA approves bacteria-infected insects to kill mosquitoes

Lab-grown mosquitoes armed with bacterium Wolbachia pipientis could be the key to killing off insects that often transmit dangerous viruses such as Zika.

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Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
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According to the World Health Organization mosquito bites kill 1,000,000 people each year.

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No one likes the idea of being bitten by a mosquito, especially if that pesky pest also is carrying around viruses as deadly as yellow fever, dengue and Zika. But what if you could eradicate the diseased insects by releasing assassin versions of mosquitoes to kill them off?

On Nov. 3, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a new approach from the biotech company MosquitoMate. The goal is to destroy populations of wild mosquitoes that could be carrying nasty viruses, according to a report from Nature magazine.

Instead of relying on genetic engineering, MosquitoMate infects lab-grown mosquitoes with the common bacterium Wolbachia pipientis, which affects mosquitoes but not animals or humans. 

The Wolbachia-infected male mosquitoes (which don't bite) mate with the wild populations of female Asian tiger mosquitoes (which do bite). The eggs fertilized by MosquitoMate's male mosquitoes won't hatch because the paternal chromosomes don't form properly due to the effects of the bacterium.

Watch this: Mosquito vs. mosquito -- a solution to Zika?

MosquitoMates plans to release its insects this summer in 20 US states and Washington DC, starting with Kentucky (where the company is based).

While this idea of bacteria-armed mosquitoes doing the dirty work for us by killing off their deadly cousins sounds like a great idea, the MosquitoMate lab techs still have to separate the male from the female lab-grown mosquitoes by hand. The process is time consuming to say the least. 

Considering that it must take millions of these lab mosquitoes to be released in a city in order to suppress the population of wild mosquitoes, the company will probably have to consider creating a faster more efficient way of separating the sexes. 

Lab-grown genetically modified mosquitoes that kill pests have already been successfully tested in other countries including China and Brazil. However, MosquitoMate hopes its GMO-free solution to destroying deadly mosquitoes will earn the praise from those of us who want a more natural way keeping mosquitoes that could end up making us sick out of our yards. 

"Unlike traditional mosquito control, we don't show up after you have a problem," according to MosquitoMate's FAQ. "By acting proactively, your population of Asian Tiger mosquitoes will not reach a nuisance level."

MosquitoMate did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its recent EPA approval or lab processes. 

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