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Oxitec: the Oxford business genetically engineering a dead end for mosquitos

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The mosquito is by some way the deadliest animal in the world. In terms of the number of human victims they claim each year nothing comes close, not even humans.

Certain species of the midge-like insects can carry extremely harmful diseases, which are transmitted when they feed on human blood. The most infamous and deadly is of course malaria, but there are many others.  

Dengue fever – also known as breakbone fever – is one. It is a viral infection usually found in tropical and sub-tropical climates, affecting 50-100 million people every year. In most cases, it causes a flu-like illness and severe joint and muscle pain, from which it gets its graphic nickname.

However, the fever can develop into a potentially lethal complication called severe dengue. This is a leading cause of serious illness and death among children in some Asian and Latin American countries.  

Each year, an estimated 500,000 people require hospitalisation because of severe dengue, with the majority being children. About 2.5% of those affected die. 

“Dengue fever is a very unpleasant, frightening disease. There’s no medication and there’s no vaccine,” said Hadyn Parry, chief executive of the Oxford-based biotech company Oxitec. 

Many countries have been fighting a long, losing battle against the aedes aegypti mosquito, the carrier of dengue. It is tiny yet distinctive, identifiable by its bright white stripes. Its name means ‘out of Egypt’. Carried from North Africa by men, the adaptable menace can also spread yellow fever and the chikungunya virus – an emerging and untreatable threat.

Where the mosquito goes, dengue is never far behind. The Portuguese archipelago of Madeira found their first aedes aegypti in 2005. A major dengue outbreak followed in 2012. 

Around the world, cases have risen thirtyfold in the last fifty years. Traditional pesticides have proved ineffective and even harmful. 

Oxitec present a pioneering alternative. Their method, which has been piloted and approved in Brazil, uses genetic engineering to control mosquito populations in a precise and environmentally friendly way.

They produce a lab-grown strain of sterilised male mosquitos to be released into the wild. Only females bite. Males lack the inclination and even the anatomy to feed on humans. When freed, the males simply track down their blood-sucking love-interests and mate. The resulting offspring inherit genes that act like a ticking time bomb, and die before they reach adulthood.

“If you do this enough times, you crash the population,” Parry explained. 

Trials in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and Malaysia have shown that mosquito numbers can be reduced by more than 90% within months.

The approach is remarkably effective and entirely species specific. Pesticides dispersed in toxic fogs kill indiscriminately, damaging delicate ecosystems. Oxitec’s method, Parry explained, is “self-limiting”.

“Every single one of our mosquitos is only going to do one of two things. Its either going to find a female, mate with her, die and produce offspring that will die. Or, he won’t find a female and he’ll die anyway.

“There’s nothing that spreads into the environment. Nothing is left in the environment.”

The usual GM concerns – fears that genetic meddling can pass through the environment and the food chain – do not apply.

“What is interesting about this is the idea that people conjure up when they think about genetically engineered things, they tend to think about crops,” Parry said.

“Crops of course persist in the environment and their genes can spread, but this is the exact opposite. You’re dealing in sterility.

“It’s a dead end.”

Parry admits that Oxitec has taken heat from pressure groups opposed to genetic modification outright. But from the general public, in countries blighted by dengue, the reception is overwhelmingly positive. 

“At the end of the day, people don’t like getting ill. The mosquito is nobody’s friend,” he said.

The commercial license Oxitec has recently obtained in Brazil is the company’s first – the first of its type in the world, no less – but Parry hopes to gain many more. 

Regulators are keen, and not surprisingly. Oxitec estimate that dengue costs the global economy around $5 billion (£2.92bn) every year. Brazil alone spends around $1 billion (£580m) trying to control it. Discussions are also ongoing regarding outdoor trials elsewhere, from Florida to India. 

Beyond aedes aegypti, Parry said he would like to adapt his method to take on anopheles and culex mosquitos, the vectors of malaria and West Nile virus.  

Oxitec are also currently developing species of agricultural pests, swapping the battle against disease for the battle for food security.  

“We think it has huge application in agriculture too – particularly where you have one main dominant pest,” Parry said.

“For example, olives. Olives are predominantly attacked by the olive fly. The olive fly can devastate the olive crop. In a case like that our approach would work very well indeed.”

First on the agenda though, is commercialisation in Brazil. Oxitec’s first factory in Brazil will open shortly. Soon, customers – local authorities and governments – will be able to purchase Oxitec’s services.

All of this has been made possible by the completion of a recent £6.1 million investment round. Existing Oxitec shareholders, including Oxford Capital Partners and the University of Oxford, completed the fundraising alongside private investors from around the world.

Parry explained that these supporters – “typically international, seasoned businesspeople and high-net-worths who understand dengue fever and environmental issues” – have helped with more than their money.

“We deliberately went out to try and get investors from around the world – from Brazil, Argentina, Asia – because it’s a contact point in those markets. It is very helpful for us.

“Some are very engaged and email me all the time. We have a very good relationship with our shareholders.”

The exit for these shareholders will come with an eventual IPO, but for now Parry eyes organic growth while building the business. With enquiries pouring in, Oxitec is primed for success. 

The future looks bright for Oxitec, decidedly less so for aedes aegypti.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr

Further reading:

£6.1m investment for Oxford firm that battles dengue fever with GM mosquitos

Warming UK cities could attract mosquitoes, says new study

Triodos teams up with natural insect repellent firm for EIS investment offer

Climate change could put millions more at risk of malaria

Dengue fever outbreak ‘imminent’ in Europe because of climate change

 

 

Environment

How Home Automation Can Help You Go Green

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home automation to go green

The holidays are an exciting, nostalgic time: the crispness in the air, the crunch of snow under your boot, the display of ornate holiday lighting up your home like a beacon to outer space, and the sound of Santa’s bell at your local Walmart.

Oh, yeah—and your enormous electric bill.

Extra lights and heating can make for some unexpected budgeting problems, and they also cause your home to emit higher levels of CO2 and other pollutants.

So, it’s not just your wallet that’s hurting—the planet is hurting as well.

You can take the usual steps to save energy and be more eco-conscious as you go about your normal winter routine (e.g., keeping cooler temperatures in the home, keeping lights off in naturally lit rooms, etc.), but these methods can often be exhausting and ultimately ineffective.

So what can you actually do to create a greener home?

Turn to tech.

Technology is making waves in conservation efforts. AI and home automation have grown in popularity over the last couple of years, not only because of their cost saving benefits but also because of their ability to improve a home’s overall energy efficiency.

Use the following guide to identify your home’s inefficiencies and find a solution to your energy woes.

Monitor Your Energy Usage

Many people don’t understand how their homes use energy, so they struggle with conservation. Start by looking at your monthly utility bills. They can show you how much energy your home typically uses and what systems cost you the most.

monitor energy usage

Licensed from Shutterstock – By Piotr Adamowicz

The usual culprits for high costs and energy waste tend to be the water heater and heating and cooling system. Other factors could also impact your home’s efficiency. Your home’s insulation, for example, could be a huge source of wasted heating and cooling—especially if the insulation hasn’t been inspected or replaced in years. You should also check your windows and doors for proper weatherproofing every year.

However, waiting for your monthly bill or checking out your home’s construction issues are time-consuming steps, and they don’t help you immediately understand and tackle the problem. Instead, opt for an easier solution. Some homeowners, for example, use a smart energy monitor such as Sense to track energy use in real time and identify energy hogs.

Use Smart Plugs

Computers, televisions, and lights still consume energy if they’re left on and unused. Computers offer easy cost savings with their built-in timers that allow the devices to use less energy—they typically turn off after a set number of minutes. Televisions sometimes provide the same benefit, although you may have to fiddle with the settings to activate this feature.

A better option—and one that thwarts both the television and the lights—is purchasing smart plugs. The average US home uses more than 900 kilowatts of electricity per month. That can really add up, especially when you realize that people are wasting more than $19 billion every year on household appliances that are always plugged in. Smart plugs like WeMo can help eliminate wasted electricity by letting you control plugged-in items from your smartphone.

Update Your Lighting

Incandescent lightbulbs can consume and waste a lot of energy—35% of CO2 emissions are generated from electric power plants. This can have serious consequences for increased global warming.

To reduce your impact on the environment, you can install more efficient lightbulbs to offset your energy usage. However, many homeowners choose smart lights, like the Philips Hue bulbs, to save money and make their homes more energy efficient.

Smart lights can be controlled from your smartphone, and many smart light options come with monthly energy reporting so you can continue to find ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Take Control of the Thermostat

Homeowners often leave the thermostat on its default settings, but defaults often result in heating and cooling systems that run longer and harder than they need to.

In fact, almost half the average residential energy use comes from energy-demanding heating and cooling systems. As an alternative to fiddling with outdated systems, eco-conscious homeowners use smart thermostats to save at least 10% on heating and roughly 15% on cooling per year.

Change your home’s story by employing a smart thermostat such as the Nest, ecobee3, or Honeywell Lyric. Smart thermostats automatically adjust your in-home temperature by accounting for a variety of factors, including outdoor humidity and precipitation. A lot of smart thermostats will also adjust your home’s temperature depending on the time of day and whether you’re home.

Stop Wasting Water

The average American household uses about 320 gallons of water per day. About one-third of that goes to maintaining their yards. Using a smart irrigation systems to improve your water usage can save your home up to 8,800 gallons of water per year.

Smart irrigation systems use AI to sync with local weather predictions, which can be really helpful if you have a garden or fruit trees that you use your irrigation system for  water. Smart features help keep your garden and landscaping healthy by making sure you never overwater your plants or deprive them of adequate moisture.

If you’re looking to make your home greener, AI-enabled products could make the transition much easier. Has a favorite tool you use that wasn’t mentioned here? Share in the comments below.

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Environment

Working From Home And How It Reduces Emissions

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Many businesses are changing their operating model to allow their employees to work from home. Aside from the personal convenience and business benefits, working from home is also great for the environment. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, if employees with the desire to work from home and compatible jobs that allowed for this were allowed to do so only half the time, the reduction in emissions would be the equivalent of eliminating automobile emissions from the workforce of the entire state of New York. Considering the stakes here, it is vital that we understand how exactly working from home helps us go green and how this can be applied.

Reduction of automobile emissions

Statistics by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that the transportation sector is responsible for about 14% of the total Global Emissions of greenhouse gases, which is a very significant percentage. If employees work from home, then the need to travel to and from their workplace every other day as well as other business trips are reduced considerably. While this may not eliminate the emissions from the transport sector altogether, it reduces the percentage. As indicated in the example above, a move to work from home by more businesses and industries cuts down automobile emissions to as much as those from an entire state.

Reduction of energy production and consumption

According to Eurostat, electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning accounted for as high as 26% of the Greenhouse gas emissions from the EU in 2014. EPA stats are also close at 25% of the total emissions. This makes energy production the single largest source of emissions. Working from home eliminates the need for large office spaces, which in turn reduces the need for electricity and heating. Similarly, the need for electrical office equipment and supplies, such as printers and computers, is also greatly reduced, which reduces the emissions from energy production in offices. Additionally, most households are now adopting green methods of energy production and implementing better ways of energy usage. The use of smart energy-efficient appliances also goes a long way in reducing the energy production and consumption levels from households. This, in turn, cuts down emissions from energy production from both the home and office fronts.

Reduced need for paper

Paper is also a huge source of emissions, considering that it is a carbon-based product. EPA stats show that carbon (IV) oxide from fossil fuel and industrial processes accounts for 65% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Working from home is usually an internet-based operation, which means less paper and more cloud-based services. When everything is communicated electronically, the need for office paper is reduced considerably. Moreover, the cutting down of trees for the sake of paper production reduces. All these outcomes help reduce the emissions and individual carbon footprints.

Effective recycling

While businesses make an effort to recycle it is not as effective as homeowners. Consider everything from the water you drink to office supplies and equipment. While working from home, you have greater control over your environment. This means that you can easily implement proper recycling procedures. However, at the office, that control over your personal space and environment is taken away and the effectiveness of recycling techniques is reduced. Working from home is, therefore, a great way to go green and increase the adoption of proper recycling.

Takeaway

Even though the statistics are in favor of working from home to reduce emissions, note that this is dependent on the reduction of emissions from home. If the households are not green, then the emissions are not reduced in the least. For instance, if instead of installing a VPN in the router to keep the home office safe, an employee buys a standalone server and air gaps it, the energy consumption is not reduced but increased. Therefore, it is necessary that employees working from home go green if there is to be any hope of using this method of operation to cut down on the emissions.

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