EPA Approves Use of Lab-Grown Mosquitoes in the Battle Against Disease

The bacterium-infected mosquitoes will be released in 20 states and D.C. to curb growing mosquito populations

Over time, the presence of lab-grown, infected mosquitoes may lead to a dwindling Asian Tiger mosquito population Oregon State University - Flickr/Creative Commons

Mosquitoes are more than mere pests—they're capable of transmitting diseases such as malaria, Zika and dengue fever. But as Nature’s Emily Waltz reports, new lab-grown mosquitos are our latest defense against rising populations of the annoying—and potentially deadly—insects.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given biotechnology start-up MosquitoMate the green light to use lab-grown mosquitos in the fight against mosquito-borne disease. These insects are infected with Wolbachia pipientis—a common bacterium capable of decimating mosquito populations without using the harmful chemicals associated with most pesticides.​ Now scientists are turning these lab-grown insects against the Asian Tiger mosquito, or Aedes albopictus, in 20 states and Washington, D.C. 

Essentially, the bacterium acts as a sterility treatment: Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes are reared in laboratories, then separated by sex. The non-biting males are released into the wild, where they mate with females that lack the same strain of Wolbachia. The fertilized eggs produced by these pairs never hatch, as the bacterium curbs the development of paternal chromosomes.

Stephen Dobson, a University of Kentucky entomologist and the founder of MosquitoMate, tells Waltz that over time, the ubiquity of these lab-grown, infected mosquitoes will lead to a dwindling Asian Tiger mosquito population. Other mosquito species and insects, however, are not harmed by the practice.

According to Gizmodo’s Kristen Brown, the EPA has registered MosquitoMate’s modified male mosquito as a biopesticide and given the company a five-year license to sell its creations to local government agencies, small businesses and homeowners.

MosquitoMate will begin marketing its product in the Lexington, Kentucky, area before moving to nearby cities such as Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Under current EPA guidelines, the company cannot release specimens in most southeastern states. So far, researchers have only conducted field tests in Kentucky, New York and California—areas with comparable temperatures and precipitation levels to those found in the 20 outlined states, as well as D.C.

Moving forward, Gizmodo’s Brown reports that MosquitoMate aims to extend its reach nationwide and launch trials featuring another deadly mosquito species, the Aedes aegypti.

Although MosquitoMate isn’t the first company to promote lab-grown mosquitoes as disease-fighting tools, it has managed to avoid negative public attention.

British biotech company Oxitec hasn’t been so lucky—in August 2016, Gizmodo's Brown wrote at the time, Florida Key residents vetoed the group’s proposed release of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

In a Facebook group entitled “No to GM Mosquitoes in the Florida Keys,” local activists explained their objections to the biopesticide, writing, “We should not be forced to be part of a human experiment and do not consent.”

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