Google versus Mosquitoes
by Tyler English | published Feb. 18th, 2019
It is the middle of July, you're sitting by the pool perfecting your tan when bam, mosquito bite. One of the most common insects on the globe decided to make you its meal for the evening. The mosquito gets his dinner, and you're left with a raised red bump on your arm and potentially a deadly disease.
Good Bugs versus Bad Bugs
The Debug Project first launched back in October 2016 and has released mosquitos ever since with the incentive of solving the mosquito problem — the problem being the thousands of deaths they are responsible for each year. Mosquitos are known to transmit diseases that are incredibly deadly to humans.
Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney is a visiting professor at RIT who teaches classes such as conservation and environmental science workshops, and has worked as a biologist for the Environmental Protection Agency in the pesticide program. Stack Whitney has studied pesticides and has kept up on new species controlling techniques like the Debug Project.
“There have been a lot of efforts in recent years to think about mosquito control from [technological] centered perspectives,” Stack Whitney explained.
In particular, Alphabet’s plan began with Aedes aegypti, a mosquito known for transmitting malaria, dengue and West Nile to humans. First, Alphabet took male mosquitos and infected them with a common bacterium, Wolbachia. The male mosquitos were then released into the wild to mate with females, the bacteria essentially making the females infertile.
Stack Whitney also added that other companies have been trying to look at other ways of solving the mosquito issue through means other than chemical pesticides. As of now, it is still unclear whether Alphabet's plans will be labeled under pesticide-free technology, or other. But they do show some signs of environmental contamination.
The concerns with chemical pesticides reside in the negative outcomes on the environment such as plants and other insect species. Most pesticides that are put out to control mosquitos have indirect effects on common pollinators such as bees or butterflies, Stack Whitney explained.
“[Alphabet's approach] can specifically target mosquitos so that other pollinators should not be affected,” Stack Whitney said.
The most obvious benefit of the Debug Project is that it could potentially limit the threat of diseases that can be transmitted from mosquitos.
“Aedes aegypti is a diseases vector; If this [Debug Project] is successful, in that it even reduces the number of people getting a disease, that’s huge,” Stack Whitney said.
Mosquitoes are only becoming more dangerous because as the climate changes and shifts, so do their populations. This means that areas that have previously seen no cases of mosquito-transmitted diseases are beginning to see outbreaks. This greatens the benefit of the eradication of this species, as it would help contain the rising outbreaks.
Stack Whitney also explained that there are individuals who look at work time and quality lost from people being out of work due to diseases that are transmitted by mosquitos. This concern about work shows how large the effect of mosquitoes can be, as Whitney explained.
“You can really think of the societal level impacts of even just reducing the frequency that people get a mosquito vectored illness,” Stack Whitney noted.
Third year Environmental Science major Amanda Van agreed with Stack Whitney on the enormous dangerous effect mosquitoes can have.
"Malaria kills and affects so many people globally; reducing the number of patients would be huge," Van said.
It is quite evident that a rise in mosquito populations results in a rise of dangerous and deadly diseases that can effect social and cultural life, and the Debug Project hopes to help better these issues. But when it comes to doing what is right, where do we cross the line?
A major concern of the Debug Project and others alike, lie in its ethics.
Technology and science advancements need to have a code of ethics on when and where they can be used. It's common for new technology to lack laws because the technology is advancing so fast that the rules cannot be written in time. Therefore, companies and the science community can easily abuse this, and do what they want with unregulated new technology.
“We have a set of tech tools, and we are answering a problem ... but where do we draw those lines,” Stack Whitney asked.
With technology starting to control species populations, we no longer have to ask ourselves if we can do this. We begin to ask ourselves, should we do this?
“What does it mean for us [humans] to try to control organisms in this way, especially if the goal is eradication,” Stack Whitney said.
The human race has tried continuously to outwit mother nature. From accidentally hunting animals, to extinction, to creating genetically modified organisms to ensure food supplies last, mankind has attempted to shape nature to its needs. Is purposefully eradicating a species too far?
"Mother nature will always win ..." Van said. "... of course the company would flaunt the benefits as they are the ones doing the study and research."
Once the infected mosquito is released into the wild, scientists can no longer control the effects it might have, and as a species we have to deal with the outcomes — positive or negative.
“The cons to think about are the hypothetical situations or the down the line scenarios that will happen ... we have to play through them,” Stack Whitney said.
Although playing god to such a tiny insect does not seem like it could have drastic negative effects environmentally, it is still a possibility. But, if we do decide to ditch our ethics, what will mother nature do next?
New technologies go through years of testing and regulation processes before they are accessible to the public to ensure there are no negative repercussions. The tactic that Alphabet is employing to tackle the mosquito problem has yet to undergone these tests — but Van raised points about possible consequences.
“What would happen to birds that eat the infected mosquitos ...” Van said. “... the effects of this targeted method of controlling the mosquito population, may not be as niche as they are making it seem.”
As stated before, releasing pesticides into the wild affects not only the targeted insect but also plant life and other animals in the area. However, developing new and better pesticides takes a lot of time and effort as scientists want to reduce the environmental impact while still targeting the pests. A further issue is that they can no longer introduce a new chemical and solve the problem either. Insects and pests have developed resistance and chemical technology is just not going to cut it anymore.
“Resistance in general is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Stack Whitney said.
Similar to how pests grow resistant to chemicals, if one egg manages to hatch from an infected mosquito, resistance to the bacterium will begin and scientists will have to start fresh.
In addition, mosquitos also have waterborne young and have aquatic based larva. These eggs and larva are vital sources of food for things such as fish and small amphibians that could potentially be depleted. Therefore, a whole chain of wildlife could possibly be affected, Stack Whitney explained.
“There would be a bottom-up effect,” Stack Whitney said.
With Alphabet starting to venture into the realm of species control, they bring into light the newest question we as a species have to start to answer. Should we really be the engineers in this way?