Frequently asked questions and answers about the CSIRO and Verily partnership.

About the partnership

1. CSIRO has just announced a partnership with Verily, an Alphabet company – what does the partnership hope to achieve?

CSIRO’s mission is to use science to deliver innovative solutions that benefit Australia and the world.

Mosquitoes are a global problem that requires a global collaborative response. CSIRO has been studying mosquitoes for many years and considering methods to reduce populations.

Verily Life Sciences LLC (an Alphabet company) has announced that it is providing resources and know-how through its ‘Debug Project’ to develop the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) for mosquito control. CSIRO and Verily are now looking to progress research from the lab to the field to confirm that new technologies will reduce mosquito populations in large urban landscapes.

2. What is Verily - and what is its interest in mosquito control? 

Verily is an Alphabet company (a Google affiliate) focusing on life sciences research and engineering to improve healthcare outcomes by applying the latest scientific and technological advances to significant problems in health and biology.

Researchers around the world face many challenges in the fight against the disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito, challenges that technology may be able to help overcome. Verily’s ‘Debug Project’ is addressing ways to remove or control mosquitoes in large urban environments. Their approach is to build the technologies required to make the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) effective for mosquitoes, including developing reliable and scalable methods for mosquito sterilisation and mass-production, sex-sorting, and efficient targeted release. Find out more at Debug - A verily project .

3. Who is involved in the CSIRO research team? 

We are a (multi-disciplinary) team of scientific researchers made up of biologists, entomologists and social scientists including local partner James Cook University of Cairns.

Dr Nigel Beebe leads the project as an extension of his work funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant awarded in 2014 to explore novel ways to reduce populations of mosquitoes that spread disease and are found in urban environments. Dr Beebe’s studies have focused on methods using the male Aedes aegypti mosquito that does not bite and therefore can not spread disease.

4. What are the goals of the collaboration in Australia?

The long-term goal of Dr Beebe’s and CSIRO’S research is to develop sterile male mosquitoes (that are not genetically modified) to mate with wild females. This will mean any eggs the female lays won’t hatch, thus reducing or eliminating a mosquito population and preventing disease transmission. In the short-term, understanding the behaviour of male mosquitoes is critical to inform potential future studies of this sterile insect technique (SIT).

CSIRO is excited to be working with Verily to expand the potential outcomes of Verily’s initial studies. It is our hope, with the support of residents, and regulatory approval, to undertake studies in an area where the disease-carrying mosquito Aedes aegypti is present.

By combining our knowledge of mosquito populations and behaviour with Verily’s technologies, we hope to reduce or remove this invasive mosquito species from urban landscapes around the world where it spreads diseases including dengue and Zika.

5. Won’t removing a species have ecosystem impacts?

The mosquito we are targeting - Aedes aegypti, is an invasive species that has been introduced to Australia relatively recently and we don’t expect its removal to have any impact on the natural environment.

There is no predator that is a specific mosquito feeder. Generalist feeders would include fish and dragonflies and some frogs, along with lizards, bats and birds.

More broadly there are around 3,500 named species of mosquitoes in the world and over 300 in Australia. One of the reasons we’re looking at new population control methods like the Sterile Insect Technique is that more traditional approaches to mosquito control often involve chemicals or other methods that may affect non-target species and ecosystems.

About CSIRO’s work in Innisfail, Far North Queensland

6. Where will CSIRO carry out these studies?

In November 2015 CSIRO began looking to see how the numbers of the invasive dengue transmitting mosquito Aedes aegypti change seasonally in the Innisfail area of Far North Queensland, on the Cassowary Coast. Innisfail has in previous years experienced local transmission of the dengue virus.

In ten months a network of over 300 traps, hosted on residential and business owner’s properties, has identified over 30 different species of mosquitoes in the region but by far the majority of mosquitoes found have been the Aedes aegypti.

7. What do you plan to do next?

Our team in Far North Queensland, working with James Cook University in Cairns and supported by Verily, is looking to carry out a small study to better understand the behaviour of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. We hope to do this through a mark, release, recapture (MRR) experiment in the coming months.
MRR studies are commonly carried out by ecologists to estimate population dynamics of insects, animals and fish, or to monitor how far these have moved and how long they live.

Our MRR study will involve releasing male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes only (males don’t bite) that have been marked with a dye. The mosquitoes will be released in small identified neighbourhoods and then recaptured through a network of traps to see how far they have flown from the release point, in what time, and if they have mated with local female Aedes aegypti in that time.

8. And after this?

Our focus at the moment is understanding more about how the male Aedes aegypti mosquito behaves. If the MRR is successful and the community shows support for our work, a possible next stage may involve a release of sterile male mosquitoes in small study sites in the Innisfail area. This would allow us to see how the sterile males behave in the urban environment and how well they can compete with wild Aedes aegypti males for a mate. If we were to consider a study of this kind in Innisfail, we would conduct extensive community engagement to ensure that all residents and stakeholders were informed of, and supportive of, our intentions. All studies will only proceed with community support. If this small study is successful, we would then consider a large-scale study in the area.

9. How are you engaging with the community?

We are engaging with the community in a number of ways, recognising that the diversity of the community requires different communication approaches. Face-to-face discussion will be a vital part of our approach. We aim to be approachable and accessible and will listen to the views of the community. We will establish a Community Reference Group to help guide the process.

We have a dedicated community engagement team consisting of social scientists and a communications specialist. Our engagement approach is based on recognised principles for effective engagement and all of our engagement processes and materials will adhere to the National Statement on Human Research Ethics.

Over the life of the project, we will continue to visit the community to provide updates and seek feedback, and to monitor and evaluate community participation and perceptions of the research project. This will enable us to learn and adjust our approaches if necessary, and to develop best practices for community engagement.

10. What method of sterilisation are you considering for the male mosquitoes?

We have looked into a number of methods of sterilisation and the most compelling method is through the use of a natural bacterium called Wolbachia. This bacteria naturally occur in many insect species but not in Aedes aegypti. The Aedes aegypti mosquito can be infected by Wolbachia (originally through microinjection of eggs in the lab, the bacteria is than passed to the next generation in the lab rearing process) and when males carrying this bacteria mate with females that do not have the Wolbachia bacteria, the eggs she lays will not hatch.

11. Where else in the world is this sterile insect technology (SIT) being developed and tested?

Researchers around the world are currently trialling this Wolbachia -based sterile insect technology including in the US, China, Malaysia and Singapore.

12. What is JCU’s involvement?

Scientists at JCU, led by Professor Scott Ritchie, are global experts on the mosquito Aedes aegypti. Purposely built large semi-field cages at JCU’s campus in Cairns are being used for experiments to help develop and evaluate these SIT technologies, including the MRR experiment.

13. How does this research differ to the work being carried out by the Eliminate Dengue project team in Queensland?

The work that the Eliminate Dengue project has been carrying out in Queensland since 2011 is not identified as sterile insect technology (SIT) as that project’s method releases male and female mosquitoes that replace the wild mosquito population with mosquitoes that are unable to transmit diseases. The SIT method aims to reduce or remove mosquitoes that transmit diseases by releasing sterile male mosquitoes only.

CSIRO will not be carrying out its research in areas where Eliminate Dengue is working or has worked. You can read more about the Eliminate Dengue project .

The Eliminate Dengue method is showing great promise in controlling dengue outbreaks in Queensland and the project is successfully expanding its activities globally and considering ways to take its method to large cities. We believe it too many benefit from the technologies Verily will be developing with CSIRO and other international partners.

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