Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Local Company Sterilizing Mosquitoes to Fight Zika Virus

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Local Company Sterilizing Mosquitoes to Fight Zika Virus

Article excerpt

The battle against the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects and paralysis, has been taken to the source.

The deadliest creatures on Earth mosquitoes kill 725,000 people every year by passing on malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and other diseases. Now the insects are blamed for spreading Zika, infecting 3 million to 4 million people across Latin America in the last year.

Conventional mosquito control efforts involve spraying pesticides where the insects breed. But mosquitoes have developed resistance to many pesticides, and the spray means other helpful bugs die. The World Health Organization says that traditional pesticides have had no significant impact on slowing other mosquito-borne diseases.

A St. Louis startup biotech company says it has another solution. Forrest Innovations of Creve Coeur plans to breed and release sterile mosquitoes to prevent reproduction and eventually reduce their population. Their first target: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which has seen the world's largest Zika outbreaks and will host the upcoming Summer Olympics.

"If we stop the mosquito, we can stop Zika, West Nile or any other viruses we might see in the next five years," said Nitzan Paldi, Forrest's CEO. Israel-based Forrest Innovations moved its American headquarters to the Bio Research and Development Growth Park at the Danforth Plant Science Center last year.

The concept is not new. Agriculture scientists have long used radiation to sterilize fruit flies, which are then released to kill off the crop-destroying pest. But fruit flies are much sturdier than mosquitoes, and radiation tends to kill the mosquito.

Forrest's mosquito control program, called NoMoreMos, involves a different technique to sterilize male mosquitoes at a larval stage. After the males are sorted by machine (females weigh slightly more than males), the larvae receive a topical application of a solution that renders them sterile but does not modify their genetic code.

It is more efficient to sterilize males and prevent them from fertilizing females' eggs. And male mosquitoes don't bite, since only females need blood meals for egg development. The idea is to outnumber the wild male mosquito population with the sterile males, who will win the competition for females' attention.

"If you release 10 sterile males for every male that is living in the environment, you are reducing the population by 90 percent every generation," Paldi said.

How to distribute sterile mosquitoes over vast areas of rain forests or other areas plagued by mosquito-borne diseases is a challenge. While fruit flies can be successfully dropped from planes, mosquitoes disintegrate in the process.

Forrest Innovations teamed up with another company that created a mechanism for mosquitoes to survive air drops. …

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