Thursday, October 6, 2016

Introducing the Debug Project

Mosquitoes kill more people than every other animal combined. The diseases they spread sicken hundreds of millions of people each year. Towards the end of 2014, some of us at Google started exploring what we could do to help solve the mosquito problem. Serendipitously, around that same time, Verily was founded (initially as Google Life Sciences) with the objective of solving hard problems in science and biology with the ultimate goal of preventing disease on a global scale. It was a perfect match.

We talked with experts from around the world working on many different approaches. One stood out to us: the the sterile insect technique (SIT). The idea is to release sterile insects to mate with wild ones. No offspring result from these matings. So if enough sterile insects are released, they can reduce, or even locally eliminate, the wild population.

The sterile insect technique was first developed in the 1950s to combat a livestock pest called the New World screwworm. Here in California, SIT is used to control Mediterranean fruit fly. Unlike chemical pesticides, sterile insects are exquisitely precise. Insects only mate with others of their own species.

There have been many attempts over the years to use SIT to control mosquitoes. One problem is that the traditional method of using radiation to sterilize insects doesn’t work well on mosquitoes. The radiation dose necessary to sterilize mosquitoes makes them bad at mating. Recently, new techniques have been developed including one using a naturally-occurring bacteria called Wolbachia. This bacteria sterilizes mosquitoes, while preserving their ability to compete for mates in the wild.

Another problem is cost. For SIT to work, a lot of mosquitoes must be raised and released. A lot of male mosquitoes, specifically. Male and female mosquitoes feed on plant nectar, but only females bite and feed on blood. By releasing only males, which can’t bite, there aren’t more mosquitoes that can spread disease. Unfortunately, raising mosquitoes and separating the males from females is currently very labor intensive, making it too expensive to deploy at a large scale.

We decided to focus on the problem of reducing that cost with automation. We’re using Verily’s combination of data analytics, sensors, lab automation technology, and scientific expertise to solve specific issues around mass-production and sex-sorting of mosquitoes, and to enable efficient and targeted releases.

We also decided to focus on one particular mosquito: Aedes aegypti. While there are thousands of different species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti is the primary vector of dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever, and there aren’t good ways to control this mosquito.

The Debug Project is still early. We've built a team of mosquito biologists, software engineers and automation experts who are all passionate about solving the problem of mosquito borne diseases. We have promising prototypes of our automated rearing, sex separation, and release systems along with new designs for sensors and traps to measure mosquito populations.

We’re announcing Debug today because we’ll soon be ready to try these outside of our lab. We want to engage with local communities and government regulators to find the right places for field trials and ensure those trials are safe and effective.

To keep up on our team’s efforts, you can follow this blog or learn more at

Posted by Linus Upson, VP of Engineering