It is often said that China is the factory of the world, and with good reason as wherever you are you’re likely able to point to at least a dozen items that were either made or assembled in PRC. While product quality and labor issues persist in some of their booming industries, there is one sector where output couldn’t be better: mosquito production!
That’s right. Somewhere in an area of Guangzhou known as Science City, a team is hard at work producing a whopping 1,000,000 mosquitoes per week. While this may sound like the premise to a cheesy sci-fi movie this level of production may end up saving hundreds if not thousands of lives.
■ Dengue fever
As we all know, mosquitoes enjoy feasting of the blood of many animals, including us. As a result they can transmit some pretty nasty diseases like malaria or, as is the case in China, dengue fever. This is a disease that can cause severe pain and loss of blood circulation, and may result in deaths particularly when the patients are children.
Currently there is no vaccine or established medicine for dengue fever leading some to target the mosquitoes who carry the disease instead. And what better way to fight mosquitoes than by making a million of them and then releasing them into the wild on a weekly basis?
Of course, these mosquitoes that are manufactured are also altered to be sterile, but that probably still doesn’t clearly explain how it can actually reduce the mosquito population. So let’s first take a crash course on their mating habits.
Under the right conditions a large amount of males will congregate in one location and start acting all rowdy. Then any female who happens to be feeling frisky will enter the cloud of males and eventually end up with a mate out of the violent melee that ensues.
However, if she ends up with a male who’s shooting blanks, she’ll think she got knocked up and lay her eggs. And yet without that magic ingredient those eggs will amount to little more that inert goo. Also, since a mosquito’s life tends to be on the order of weeks, there’s little chance she’ll go through that mating ordeal again.
■ Numbers game
So, if you were to overpopulate that cloud of mating males with sterile ones, very few fertile eggs would be laid, and all those existing mosquitoes would naturally come to their demise in a short time. When you think about it, it’s actually the most ecologically and ethically reasonable way to curb their population. It isn’t new either: forced sterilization has been done on other pests in the past such as tsetse flies.
Previously, however, this was done by radiation, and while radioactivity is just as great for killing sperm as it is for creating superheroes it also has the nasty side effect of making living creatures severely ill and weak. That’s why this method has been ineffective on mosquitoes thus far. If a sterilized male mosquito is also weakened by radiation, there’s no way it can succeed in the fiercely competitive mating ritual.
Now, with advances in genetic modification we can now make sterile mosquitoes that retain their strength and can successfully mate without reproducing. While that sounds great, there’s still the problem that mosquitoes can fly around wherever they want and, as one of the procedure’s creators Flaminia Catteruccia of Imperial College London admitted, the method would be far too labor-intensive to be effective in the vast areas that mosquitoes inhabit in the wild.
“Far too labor-intensive?” Sounds like a job for China!
■ The new Motown
Guangzhou City has recognitions as both a major manufacturing powerhouse in China as well as a hotbed of dengue fever cases. Last year was cited as the nation’s worst in decades for infections of the disease at around 47,000 with a vast majority of them happening in and around Guangzhou.
So, it was here that the mosquito factory headed by Xi Zhiyong (pictured above) has been making and dumping their legions of GM mosquitoes starting with Shazi Island as a first-of-its-kind outdoor test run. According to reports the mosquito population on the island has dropped by a staggering 90 percent as a result. If these results can be duplicated in landlocked areas, we may finally see an effective counter measure to several fatal diseases around the world and at the very least a marked reduction in those insanely annoying pests.
Bet you didn’t wake up this morning expecting to root for China to mass-produce parasitic insects, did you?