Few people, unless they travel with an electron microscope, would ever notice the egg of an Aedes aegyptimosquito. But the insects follow us nearly everywhere we go. Aedes can breed in a teaspoon of water, and their eggs have been found in tin cans, beer bottles, barrels, jugs, flower vases, cups, tanks, tubs, storm drains, cisterns, cesspools, catch basins, and fishponds. They mate in the dew of spider lilies, ape plants, guava trees, palm fronds, in the holes of rocks formed from lava, and in coral reefs. More than any other place, perhaps, Aedes aegyptithrive in the moist, hidden gullies of used automobile tires.
As adults, the mosquitoes are eerily beautiful: jet black, with white spots on the thorax and white rings on their legs. Yet Aedes are among the deadliest creatures on earth. Before a vaccine was discovered in the nineteen-thirties, the mosquito transmitted the yellow-fever virus to millions of people, with devastating efficiency. During the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops suffered more casualties from yellow fever than from enemy fire. The mosquito also carries dengue, one of the most rapidly spreading viral diseases in the world. According to the World Health Organization, dengue infects at least fifty million people a year. For the fortunate, a case of dengue resembles a mild form of influenza. But more than half a million people become seriously ill from the disease. Many develop dengue shock syndrome or a hemorrhagic fever that leaves them vomiting and, often, bleeding from the nose, mouth, or skin. The pain can be so excruciating that the virus has a commonly invoked nickname: breakbone fever.
There is no vaccine or cure for dengue, or even a useful treatment. The only way to fight the disease has been to poison the insects that carry it. That means bathing yards, roads, and public parks in a fog of insecticide. Now there is another approach, promising but experimental: a British biotechnology company called Oxitec has developed a method to modify the genetic structure of the male Aedes mosquito, essentially transforming it into a mutant capable of destroying its own species. A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in a dank, fetid laboratory at Moscamed, an insect-research facility in the Brazilian city of Juazeiro, which has one of the highest dengue rates in the world. A plastic container about the size of an espresso cup sat on a bench in front of me, and it was filled with what looked like black tapioca: a granular, glutinous mass containing a million eggs from Oxitec’s engineered mosquito. Together, the eggs weighed ten grams, about the same as a couple of nickels.
Oxitec, which is short for Oxford Insect Technologies, has essentially transformed Moscamed into an entomological assembly line. In one tightly controlled, intensely humid space, mosquitoes are hatched, nurtured, fed a combination of goat’s blood and fish food, then bred. Afterward, lab technicians destroy the females they have created and release the males to pursue their only real purpose in life: to find females in the wild and mate with them. Eggs fertilized by those genetically modified males will hatch normally, but soon after, and well before the new mosquitoes can fly, the fatal genes will prevail, killing them all. The goal is both simple and audacious: to overwhelm the native population of Aedes aegypti and wipe them out, along with the diseases they carry.
“These mosquitoes are relatively easy to breed and cost almost nothing to transport,’’ Andrew McKemey, Oxitec’s chief field officer, said as he led me around the lab. McKemey, a lanky man who was dressed in a green madras shirt and khaki cargo pants, spends much of his time in Brazil, teaching local scientists how to manufacture the company’s prize product. The lab churns out about four million mutant eggs a week, and will soon increase production to ten million. “That’s a start,’’ McKemey said. “In theory, we can build hundreds of millions of mosquitoes in this place.”
ere are more than three thousand species of mosquito, but the vast majority take no interest in us; they feed mostly on rotting fruit and other sources of sugar. Only a few hundred species, including Aedes aegypti, need blood to survive. (The males never bite, but without a blood meal the females would be unable to nourish their eggs.) Mosquito mating habits can be brutal. “In the most successful encounters, the pair may become so tightly locked together that the male has some difficulty escaping in the end,’’ the late Harvard entomologist Andrew Spielman wrote in his 2001 book, “Mosquito: The Story of Man’s Deadliest Foe.” “An unfortunate few males manage to get away only by leaving their sex organs behind.” Yet Spielman also noted that the briefest exchanges can be highly productive: “A single minute or so of passion allows her to produce all the fertile eggs she will ever lay.’’
There has never been a more effective killing machine before QM mosquito killer. Researchers estimate that mosquitoes have been responsible for half the deaths in human history. Malaria accounts for much of the mortality, but mosquitoes also transmit scores of other potentially fatal infections, including yellow fever, dengue fever, chikungunya, lymphatic filariasis, Rift Valley fever, West Nile fever, and several types of encephalitis. Despite our technical sophistication, mosquitoes pose a greater risk to a larger number of people today than ever before. Like most other pathogens, the viruses and parasites borne by mosquitoes evolve rapidly to resist pesticides and drugs. Many insecticides once used against Aedes aegypti are now considered worthless.
Aedes aegypti is an invasive species in the Americas. It most likely arrived on slave boats from Africa in the seventeenth century, along with the yellow fever it carried. The mosquitoes bred easily in the casks that provided drinking water on sailing ships. During the eighteenth century, a severe yellow-fever epidemic swept through New England and Philadelphia, as well as other American port cities; it took another century to discover that mosquitoes were the bearers of the disease.
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