Biotech companies unite to engineer a better mosquito repellent

The Aedes albopictus, which can spread Zika, seen way too close. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Biotech companies are partnering with the U.S. military to engineer a better mosquito repellent.

Why it matters: More than 1 million people die each year from mosquito-borne diseases, and existing repellents are limited in their effectiveness. Using synthetic biology to design a superior sustainable repellent could help change that.

Driving the news: Ginkgo Bioworks announced on Thursday it had won a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to help engineer a skin-based / microbiome mosquito repellent.

The contract is worth up to $15 million and includes partners from the medical dermatology company Azitra, Latham BioPharm Group, and Florida International University.

How it works: DEET has been the gold standard for mosquito repellent since the 1940s, but it can cause skin irritation and degrade clothing, and loses its effectiveness within hours.

Ginkgo and its partners will use high-throughput testing to discover engineered microbial compounds that can repel mosquitoes and mask the chemical volatiles released by human beings that naturally attract insects.

“The idea is to create a repellent that you don’t have to reapply,” says Nádia Parachin, program director of organism engineering at Ginkgo.

 Context: The contract is part of the military’s ReVector program, which aims to protect the U.S. military against disease-causing insects.

The project also demonstrates the way Ginkgo — which synthesizes more DNA than any other company in the world — is working to become the AWS of synthetic biology, providing its microbe-engineering expertise and production capabilities as a service.

Just as the military can tap cloud computing services for its needs, “they can trust us to be their general-purpose biology provider,” says Zach Smith, director of government business at Ginkgo.

What to watch: Whether the final product is effective and safe and whether it eventually makes its way to the hundreds of millions of people for whom a better mosquito repellent is a matter of life or death.

By Bryan Walsh, author of Future