UK scientists use mosquito sex to foil backyard pests

ctruman@herald-leader.comJuly 21, 2014 

Consider mosquito sex as the on-ramp to the road less bitten.

University of Kentucky scientists are testing a method to foil those winged wretches, the mosquitoes that seem to line every corner of your outdoors waiting to leave you with itchy welts.

The big gun in the UK research, which is being tested in Lexington, is technology developed by UK and licensed to the MosquitoMate company (MosquitoMate.com).

The research involves releasing a bunch of male mosquitoes and letting them do what they do naturally; seek out female mosquitoes. But MosquitoMate mosquitoes leave their female companions infertile.

Eventually, the population of female mosquitoes will diminish. And since it's only female mosquitoes who bite and transmit disease, the area can be rendered bite-free without chemicals and without potential risk to humans, pets and pollinators.

Jimmy Mains, a medical entomologist with MosquitoMate, earned his Ph.D. from UK in 2012 while working in the lab of UK professor and researcher Stephen Dobson, who formed the company.

MosquitoMate male mosquitoes are produced with a strain of the Wolbachia bacterium that will leave females, with which they have contact, infertile. The male mosquitoes, which are not biters, are the pest-control mechanism.

Given that the lifetime range of a mosquito is only about a hundred yards, releasing the special male mosquitoes could buy a homeowner a season of relative comfort — particularly needed since mosquitoes can breed in the smallest drop of water, and even in droplets in the trees, according to Dobson.

"Typically after each pulse of rain they will come out," Mains said.

The MosquitoMate technology is not just targeted toward homeowners: The company will be testing among "mosquito control districts" in other states where mosquitoes are a perennial problem. Mains just received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to begin field trials for the MosquitoMate method in California, New York and Florida.

As word has gotten around Lexington that volunteer yards and spaces are needed — much of the mosquito release so far has been around the Elizabeth Street area — Dobson and Mains say they have become very popular with those wanting to try out the new technology. With limited resources, they are not available to do widespread testing.

While the MosquitoMate technology may not eliminate the need for sprays, Dobson said it can help to reduce spraying and protect some of the critters that can be hurt by chemicals, such as bees and butterflies.

The research goal is not to eliminate mosquitoes, but to reduce the use of chemicals used on them, he said.

Meanwhile, Mains said, mosquitoes are picking up resistance to some chemicals.

Still, he said, even MosquitoMate is not a one-and-done technology.

"While you may have killed every adult in your yard, the next generation is coming along," Dobson said. "... Chemical pesticides are a wonderful things — but it would be nice to expand the tool box."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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