Excerpted from Solution Nation: One Nation is Disproportionately Responding to the World’s Most Intractable Problems
Sterile Insect Technique is an alternative to spraying insecticides and consists of overwhelming populations of wild female mosquitoes with swarms of sterile male mosquitoes. The more that sterile males outnumber wild males, the more females will end up mating with them. Since female mosquitoes only mate once in their lives, their mating with sterile males will inhibit future generations of offspring.
Some localities deluged with mosquitoes have engaged fleets of vans to disseminate sterile male mosquitoes. These efforts have generally been insufficient. Many vans are required and each vehicle needs at least a driver and another worker to disperse the male mosquitoes. Mosquitoes must be released within narrow windows of time, generally a few hours bracketing sunrise or sunset. Liberating mosquitoes during hot days will result in their searching for shade instead of romantic liaisons.
Senecio, based in Kfar Saba, Israel, is engaged in the sterile insect technique with a twist. Instead of releasing sterile male mosquitoes from vans, Senecio is piloting the release of millions of mosquitoes from airplanes. Of course, airplanes travel faster than vehicles and extend coverage perimeters. There is actually precedent for Senecio’s strategy; billions of sterile but rugged male fruit flies have been dropped out of airplanes for purposes of ridding farmers of Mediterranean fruit flies.
The Senecio Solution
Releasing millions of sterile male mosquitoes from airplanes travelling at 250 kilometers per hour, in what I call Operation Infinite Romeo, presents monumental challenges. Let’s review a few of the obstacles that Senecio has had to overcome.
First, the Company must obtain millions of sterile male mosquitoes. This initial step is mostly a matter of contracting with companies with an expertise in breeding sterile mosquitoes. However, impeccable timing is critical as male mosquitoes only live for 10 days. Treated male mosquitoes must be secured, loaded into airplanes and released when they are between three and eight days old. The first few days of a mosquito’s life are spent in the laboratory and, like any other organism, their virility wanes with age.
While suppliers are rearing millions of male mosquitoes, Senecio surveys the areas to be love bombed. During this stage, estimates of the number of males needed to be dropped per hectare are made; typically the target ratio is about four sterile males for every wild female. The optimum flying routes and times of day for executing Operation Infinite Romeo are also determined.
Rapidly placing millions of sterile mosquitoes into containers is no easy feat, especially when considering the delicate nature of these insects. The right numbers of mosquitoes must be placed in designated containers to be dropped over specified hectares. Senecio has developed sophisticated algorithms and robotic processes set up in assembly-line formation that make high-throughput mosquito packing possible.
The airplanes in which the sterilized males are placed are cooled at 7° or 8° Celsius. Keeping the mosquitoes cool immobilizes them during the journey. If the mosquitoes were to mingle, their legs would tangle, compromising the effectiveness of their airborne release. Further, causing the mosquitoes to remain still allows for greater packing density.
Calculations are performed regarding how many mosquitoes to release over which hectares as the plane travels over the targeted areas. Every one-half to two seconds, a different canister of mosquitoes is released. The technology behind such controlled opening of mosquito-laden containers is extremely sophisticated.
How can each of 1,000 to 10,000 immobilized mosquitoes be pushed out of their canisters and out of airplanes on average once every second? And even if they are pushed out of their containers and airplanes, how can these fragile insects avoid disintegrating when exposed to the wind shear caused by the plane?
The answer to the first question is that Senecio puffs the mosquitoes out of their containers; blowing air at the mosquitoes dislodges them without using any mechanical means. Second, Senecio invented an aerial release pod that attaches externally to the frame of the airplanes. These pods create a laminar flow of slow air speed, enabling the falling mosquitoes to descend safely.
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