Manufacturing mosquitoes in Mexico

  • Oct 9, 2018
  • Mexico, vector-borne diseases, mosquitoes, Faculty, research
  • Homepage Hero, Faculty & Staff, Research, College of Natural Science, Microbiology
Image of Zhiyong Xi receiving a certificate at the opening of his laboratory in Mexico
MSU's Zhiyong Xi (left) is formally recognized during the official opening of his Aedes aegypti Biological Control Laboratory in Yucatan, Mexico.

Most of us try to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in our own backyards, so why would a Michigan State University (MSU) researcher be happy about a factory capable of producing a million male mosquitoes a week?

Zhiyong Xi, a professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics in the College of Natural Science (NatSci), has a unique approach to fighting tropical diseases using mosquitos—millions of them. He breeds male mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, bacteria that are naturally found in many species of insects, including butterflies, honey bees and mosquitoes, but are not dangerous to humans. When these infected males are released and mate with the wild females, these females become sterile. In addition, the Wolbachia inhibits viral replication, dissemination and transmission of diseases such as dengue and Zika.

On Sept. 5, Xi’s work was recognized with the official opening of his Aedes aegypti Biological Control Laboratory, what he calls a mosquito factory, in Yucatan, Mexico, at the Autonomous University of Yucatan (UADY) in the city of Merida.  

As a collaborative effort between Xi and UADY Professor Pablo Manrique-Saide, the laboratory was made possible through a highly competitive $1 million grant from USAID that MSU received in 2016. The grant is part of USAID’s Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenge, which funded 21 projects from 900 submissions. Additional funding for the factory was provided by the government of Yucatan’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT) this year.

This new facility builds on Xi’s work with Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China. A similar mosquito factory, established there in 2015, is currently the world's largest facility of its kind, with a capacity to produce 60 million male Aedes albopictus mosquitoes per week. Due to its encouraging results in field trials, this technology was recommended by the World Health Organization in 2016 as its potential “for long-term control of A. aegypti and A. albopictus mosquitoes.” Mosquito strains developed by Xi are also widely used in field trials in Singapore and Australia with involvement by Verily, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc.

Xi’s main goal for the Merida lab is to produce Wolbachia-infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes for release in the field to control local transmission of diseases such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya.

“As the first mosquito factory in Mexico, this facility will allow us to test the technology in different field settings,” Xi said. “We feel proud that the research we are doing in the laboratory is now able to be used and tested in the field for disease control. We hope that successfully running this factory will result in a novel solution to combat mosquito-transmitted diseases, not just relying on the more traditional approaches—such as chemical insecticides—that are known to be insufficient for disease control.”

A new building is now under construction next to the current mosquito factory; it will expand the production area so researchers can further scale up the mosquito mass rearing, which will enable them to further deploy the technology to a broader endemic area in Mexico.

“We want our mosquito factories—in China and in Mexico—to serve as demonstration centers for those countries in Asia and Latin America, respectively, that are currently seeking new technology for disease control. We also want to adapt and extend the technology for control of malaria and agricultural insect pests,” Xi said. “It is my wish to develop a Center for Wolbachia Technology at MSU, through a broad international collaboration, to promote translation and deployment of Wolbachia for biocontrol of medically and agriculturally important disease vectors and pest species in general.”

In addition to Xi, others attending the Sept. 5 event from MSU included Travis Gordon, D.O., assistant medical director with the MSU Institute for Global Health; and Maria Lorena Mier y Teran, assistant coordinator for the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Merida office.  

The inauguration of the mosquito factory was headed by the governor of Yucatan, Rolando Zapata Bello. Other dignitaries present included Jesús Felipe González Roldán, director of Mexico’s National Center for Preventive Programs and Disease Control; Jose De Jesus Williams, president of UADY; Emilio Martínez De Velasco Aguirre, Southeast Regional Director of CONACYT; Jorge Mandoza Mezquita, secretary of the Ministry of Health of Yucatan; and Raúl Godoy Montañez, Secretary of Research, Innovation and Higher Education of Yucatan.

An approval was granted to Xi from the governor of Yucatan for field release of mosquitoes during the factory’s opening celebration.


Banner image: According to the World Health Organization, vector-borne diseases account for more than 17 percent of all infectious diseases, causing more than one million deaths annually.