Most of us try to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in our own backyards, so why would a Michigan State University researcher be happy about a factory capable of producing a million male mosquitoes a week?
Zhiyong Xi, a professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics in the College of Natural Science, has a unique approach to fighting tropical diseases using mosquitoes—millions of them. He breeds male mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, a bacteria naturally found in many species of insects including butterflies and honey bees, but is not dangerous to humans. When these infected males are released and mate with the wild females, the females become sterile.
As a result, the bacteria can stop the viral replication and transmission of diseases such as dengue and Zika.
Last month, Xi’s work was recognized with the official opening of his biological control laboratory, what he calls a "mosquito factory," in Yucatan, Mexico. It was held at the Autonomous University of Yucatan, or UADY, in the city of Merida.
As a collaborative effort between Xi and UADY professor Pablo Manrique-Saide, the laboratory was made possible through a competitive $1 million grant from USAID received in 2016. The grant is part of USAID’s Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenge, which funded 21 projects from 900 submissions. Additional funding for the factory was provided by the government of Yucatan’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología this year.
This new facility builds on Xi’s work with Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China. A similar mosquito factory, established there in 2015, is currently the world's largest facility of its kind, with a capacity to produce 60 million male Aedes albopictus mosquitoses per week.
Due to its encouraging results in field trials, this technology was even recommended by the World Health Organization in 2016 for its potential for long-term control of these particular mosquitoes, as well as another type known as Aedes aegypti.
For the Merida lab, Xi’s main goal is to produce Wolbachia-infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes for release in the field to control local transmission of diseases such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya.
“As the first mosquito factory in Mexico, this facility will allow us to test the technology in different field settings,” Xi said. “We hope that successfully running this factory will result in a novel solution to combat mosquito-transmitted diseases, not just relying on the more traditional approaches—such as chemical insecticides—that are known to be insufficient for disease control.”
An additional building is now under construction, expanding the production area so researchers can scale up the mass rearing of mosquitoes , which will enable them to further deploy the technology to a broader area in Mexico.
“We want our mosquito factories—in China and in Mexico—to serve as demonstration centers for those countries in Asia and Latin America, respectively, that are currently seeking new technology for disease control,” Xi said. “It is my wish to develop the Center for Wolbachia Technology at MSU, through a broad international collaboration, to promote translation and deployment of Wolbachia for biocontrol of medically and agriculturally important disease vectors and pest species in general.”