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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 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.

Go deeper... CDC: Illnesses from ticks and mosquitos tripled over 13 years

Go deeper

Dems race to address, preempt stimulus fraud claims

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Biden officials are working to root out the systematic fraud in unemployment and Paycheck Protection Program claims that plagued the Trump administration’s efforts to boost the economy with coronavirus relief money, Gene Sperling told House committee chairmen privately this week.

Why it matters: President Biden just signed another $1.9 trillion of aid into law, with Sperling tapped to oversee its implementation. And the administration is asking Congress to approve another $2.2 trillion for the first phase of an infrastructure package.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden close to picking Nick Burns as China ambassador

Nicholas Burns. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, is in the final stages of vetting to serve as President Biden’s ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Across the administration, there's a consensus the U.S. relationship with China will be the most critical — and consequential — of Biden's presidency. From trade to Taiwan, the stakes are high. Burns could be among the first batch of diplomatic nominees announced in the coming weeks.

Biden's Russian sanctions likely to achieve little

President Biden announces new sanctions against Russia. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Despite bold talk from top administration officials, there's little reason to think the Russia sanctions package President Biden announced Thursday will do anything to alter Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior or calculus.

Why it matters: While it's true some elements of the package — namely, the targeting of Russia's sovereign debt — represent significant punitive measures against Moscow, it leaves plenty of wiggle room for the Russian president.

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