Lee County, Keys experiment with mosquito sterilization

FORT MYERS, Fla. Mosquito control districts in Lee County and the Florida Keys are exploring ways to sterilize the bugs — particularly the type that carries the Zika virus.

“Aedes aegypti for us is public enemy No. 1,” Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Chairman Phil Goodman said.

Goodman’s district is introducing bacteria-infected male mosquitoes into the wild as part of a trial effort to lower the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, known to carry Zika, dengue fever and other illnesses.

There were 1,456 known Zika infections in Florida last year, 285 of which were locally acquired, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The Keys district is working with a company to fly in mosquitoes infected with wolbachia, a naturally occurring bacteria found in other insects.

“A male that has wolbachia, and he mates with a wild female that doesn’t have wolbachia, you get sterility, you get no viable offspring,” Goodman said.

Twice a week, Keys district crews release 25,000 wolbachia-infected mosquitoes that are shipped in tubes from Kentucky.

“Now that the rains have really started down here in South Florida, now we’re hopefully going to be getting some good efficacy data,” district Director Andrea Leal said. “And we’ll really know, are we making an impact on our local population or not?”

Lee County Mosquito Control applied to be part of the same trial but hasn’t heard back yet. In the meantime, they’re moving forward on a plan to radiate mosquitoes.

Doing so would theoretically sterilize the mosquitoes, just as the spread of wolbachia-infected bugs would. But radiation would be cheaper since it’s not a patented technology, Lee County Mosquito Control Executive Director Wayne Gales said.

Another sterilization technique in the works for the Keys involves genetically modified mosquitoes, though that technique faces opposition over environmental concerns. It would require federal approval, though Goodman and his colleagues seem confident they’ll get the OK.


Reporter:Lindsey Sablan