US government approves ‘killer’ mosquitoes to fight disease

US government approves 'killer' mosquitoes to fight disease

US Environmental Protection Agency will allow release of insects in 20 states and Washington DC.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the use of a common bacterium to kill wild mosquitoes that transmit viruses such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika, Nature’s news team has learned.

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.


Looking ahead

Using lab-grown mosquitoes to kill mosquito pests has been tested extensively in Brazil in recent years. The country has allowed large-scale releases of such mosquitoes in response to an epidemic of the Zika virus that began in 2015. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that has been linked to severe birth defects, such as abnormally small heads — a condition known as microcephaly. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are thought to be the primary vector for the virus.

One type of mosquito being tested in Brazil is a genetically modified variety of A. aegypti developed by Oxitec of Milton Park, UK. When the modified male mosquitoes mate with wild females, they pass a lethal gene on to any progeny.

Oxitec has run into challenges when attempting to test its GM mosquitoes in the United States, however. A community in the Florida Keys voted last year against allowing Oxitec to conduct field trials there, although the rest of the county in which it’s located voted in favour of those plans.

In contrast, MosquitoMate has developed and tested a variety of Wolbachia-carrying A. aegypti mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and Fresno, California, without drawing much public attention. The EPA received only 14 comments during the public comment period for the Florida trials, and most of them were positive. The company plans to apply to the EPA for nationwide release of that species, says Dobson.

Mary Greeley News