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Mosquitoes are a significant threat to public health as they transmit deadly diseases, including dengue fever. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are responsible for spreading dengue fever, which infects 100 to 400 million and kills about 21,000 people annually. In an effort to fight this virus, Singapore’s National Environment Agency has been breeding Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes since 2016. These mosquitoes are disease-free and have been proven to stop the spread of dengue. Wolbachia is a bacterium found in 60% of insect species, and scientists have discovered that infecting Aedes aegypti with it prevents the spread of dengue.
These Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes are difficult to mass-produce, but Singapore has been able to automate some of the steps that were previously done by hand. While Singapore opted for a suppression method, where male Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes are released, scientists from the World Mosquito Program have launched Wolbachia programs in 12 countries using a different approach known as population replacement, which requires fewer factory-bred mosquitoes. The aim is to replace native populations with one that cannot transmit dengue. Wolbachia programs have gained momentum, but there is still a lot to be learned about how it works inside mosquitoes and how it evolves. The hope is that this method will ultimately reduce the number of mosquitoes carrying the virus and prevent the spread of dengue.
It is a common belief that mosquitoes are nothing but a nuisance. However, in reality, these insects are responsible for spreading deadly diseases. In Singapore, where mosquitoes are a constant problem, scientists at the National Environment Agency (NEA) have been breeding millions of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia. This bacterium, found in 60% of insect species, prevents the spread of dengue, a virus that infects millions of people each year. Since 2016, the NEA has been releasing millions of male Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes to suppress the population of native mosquitoes that carry the virus. While this method is effective, it requires large numbers of lab-bred insects, making it difficult to mass-produce. To combat this, the NEA has automated some of the processes, but it would still be challenging to cover the billions of people in over 100 countries who are at risk of dengue.
The World Mosquito Program (WMP) and other research organizations have been using an alternative Wolbachia-based approach known as population replacement. This approach does not require large numbers of mosquitoes and aims to replace the native population with one that cannot transmit dengue. Both male and female mosquitoes are infected with Wolbachia, which impairs the females’ ability to transmit the virus. In a non-randomized study conducted in Indonesia, dengue incidence fell by 73% after a population-replacement protocol, and in Brazil, it fell by 69%. The method has proven to be simpler and more affordable, making it a suitable option for countries with limited budgets.
While both approaches have their advantages, the NEA opted for the suppression method over the population replacement method. According to Ng Lee Ching, director of NEA’s Environmental Health Institute, Singapore chose the suppression method because releasing biting female mosquitoes would be less accepted by the public, who are not used to mosquito bites. The suppression method has led to a dramatic reduction in the wild Aedes aegypti population, and as a result, there have been fewer cases of dengue fever.
Although the Wolbachia approach has gained momentum, scientists are still learning how it works inside mosquitoes, how it evolves, and whether it pushes the evolution of mosquitoes in unexpected directions.
There are also concerns about the unintended consequences of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild. While the technology has been shown to be effective in reducing mosquito populations in controlled experiments, there is still much to learn about the long-term impact of releasing these insects into the environment. Additionally, there are questions about the ethics of releasing genetically modified organisms into the wild, as well as concerns about the potential impact on non-target species.
Despite these challenges, researchers continue to investigate the use of Wolbachia and other genetic modification techniques to control mosquito populations and reduce the spread of diseases such as dengue, Zika, and malaria. The hope is that by developing new tools and approaches to combat these diseases, we can improve public health and save countless lives around the world.
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