4th January 2011 marks a great milestone in Scott O’Neill’s life. He walks up and releases his first batch of mosquitoes in the air –as a fight against the Dengue Virus, strange?
Given that mosquitoes spread the Dengue Virus, his approach comes through as unorthodox but it has been a very long journey for him, and this is a big day.
Scott has seen many infected people suffer from the virus and aware of the fact that no treatment or vaccine has been found for Zika, he took the challenge to offer a solution. The mosquitoes released are the Aedes aegypti which transmits the dengue fever. 400 million people are infected annually by the bites of the mosquitoes.
Scott, like many other people, was burdened to find a way to eradicate the virus, believes that the best way to fight it is through prevention. They, however, differ on the how to offer the solution. He reasons that despite eradication of mosquitoes through the old known methods, the virus is still prevalent.
His method is very different as he releases mosquitoes with Wolbachia bacterium. Wolbachia is Scott’s favorite bacteria.
The bacteria were discovered by Simeon Burt Wolbach-an entomologist and Marshall Hertig, a pathologist, in 1924. They could not hold it responsible for causing any disease hence ignored. Twelve years later, Hertig found it in a mosquito named it Wolbachia pipientis, after his friend Wolbach who had found it. By then Wolbach had long died.
In the 80’s and 90’s, the bacteria caught the interest of the scientists as they found it everywhere yet it had been thought less important for decades.
Wolbachia interfered with the production of male hormones and killed male embryos. It worked to eliminate the male species of most samples it was tried on, and this was essential to Scott. It also thrives in eggs and ovaries and reproduces very fast. On land, i
t is the most successful bacterium in the world.
Scott’s logic is to get the bacterium to as many mosquitoes as possible to eliminate the virus since the carriers will be dead ends.
The bacteria spread very fast and for this reason, he just has to release a few wild ones into the air and rest assured that they will spread the bacteria.
His journey has been a long one. He and his team have hit dead ends, hair pulling moments but are happy with the turn of events.
Conor McMeniman, one of the students he considers his best managed to infect an egg and that began the journey to success.
Skeptics suggest that some mosquitoes may develop resistance after a while, a thought that O’Neill and his team are fast to dispel.