Singapore releases millions of disease-ridden mosquitoes. Here's why

AI and automation are making mass production a less tedious and error-prone job.
Sade Agard
An enclosure filled with female and male Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes mating .jpg
An enclosure filled with female and male Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes mating .

ROSLAN RAHMAN /Getty Images 

Tens of millions of disease-ridden mosquitoes are being bred inside plastic boxes by Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) to fight dengue. 

Even though protocols of comparable approaches for pest control have been utilized in nations worldwide for more than a decade, NEA researchers stand out due to their use of automation and AI for achieving mass production. 

How are disease-ridden mosquitoes preventing illnesses?

All of the mosquitoes in the NEA are Aedes aegypti, according to Undark, which is a type that may infect humans with viruses like dengue. Each year, up to 400 million people get infected with the dengue virus, and approximately 40,000 die from severe dengue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, NEA's confined mosquitoes are free of disease. They have been exposed to a bacteria known as Wolbachia, which they will transmit to the next generation in an effort to halt the deadly viral infection.

Aedes aegypti mosquitos no longer readily transmit the dengue virus to humans when infected with Wolbachia. Additionally, though in rare instances and in a way not yet fully understood, the bacterium can prevent mosquitoes from reproducing. When males mate with local Wolbachia-free females, the females lay eggs that won't hatch, and in time the number of mosquitoes decreases. 

NEA researchers in Singapore have released male mosquitoes carrying the Wolbachia parasite since 2016. By 2019, they were releasing up to 2 million insects each week; thanks to automation, that figure increased to as many as 5 million per week in 2022. 

In intervention areas, this has so far resulted in sharp declines in Aedes aegypti numbers in the wild as well as significantly less dengue virus.

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However, for unknown reasons, mosquitoes might effectively reproduce when both partners are infected with Wolbachia. To avoid this, NEA researchers use a new AI-based computer system called the pupae sex sorter to segregate the females from the males before the males are infected and released. 

Now, huge batches of mosquitoes can be produced thanks to automating a tedious and error-prone job that traditionally is done by hand.

Why did the U.S. release millions of gene-hacked mosquitoes?

Still, Singapore is not the only country that fights illnesses by releasing millions of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. And they are all male too!

Earlier, IE reported that the biotech company Oxitec, backed by Bill Gates, moved forward with plans to release hundreds of millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Florida to test a novel population pest control method. 

However, the controversial project's strategy aimed to restrict the number of female Aedes aegypti that may spread disease by adding a self-limiting gene that causes offspring to die before reaching adulthood.

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