In the News: Genome of Deadly Australian Parasite Mapped

Blowfly parasite.
Blowfly parasite.

The genome of the blowfly (Lucilia cuprina), known as one of Australia’s most devastating parasites, has recently been mapped. The article, originally published in Nature Communications on June 25, 2015, notes that the parasitic fly is of major economic importance worldwide, responsible for an average yearly loss of $280 million from Australia’s sheep industry. The genome-sequencing project, led by the University of Melbourne, in partnership with the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center, and funded by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute and Australian Wool Innovation, identified all 14,544 genes of the parasite. Interestingly, of these 14,544 genes, approximately 2000 were genes not seen before in any other organism.

Blowflies are parasitic organisms that, when in the maggot stage, live on the skin of sheep and cause severe tissue damage when they invade open wounds. Once inside, blowflies feed on the tissue and cause a severe disease known as myiasis. The disease is also more popularly known as “flystrike.”

Sequencing of the genome has been a long-awaited milestone in the control of this economically devastating parasite. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Clare Anstead, of the University of Melbourne Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, noted that the answer to finding an effective control method lies within the genome. She also noted that this pest has previously been especially good at resisting pesticides, as it is able to evolve resistance to all other pesticides scientists have tried in the past. Knowing the sequence of the genome will make it easier for scientists to predict gene mutations that give the flies resistance to pesticides, therefore enabling them to make effective pesticides in the future.

Researchers also hope to use the genome information to create a vaccine that targets the flystrike in its early stages by killing the maggots. This would require a vaccine that destroys or alters proteins vital to the survival of the maggots.

Not only is this information valuable in the context of creating new vaccines and pesticides to reduce flystrike on sheep, but it is also valuable in the context of making genetic alterations to the flies themselves. The study noted that flies have such a sophisticated sense of smell that they are able to smell the difference between resistant sheep and vulnerable sheep. Alteration of the genes responsible for their sense of smell would produce flies that are incapable of smelling the difference between vaccinated and vulnerable sheep.

In my own opinion, I believe that the sequencing of the genome of such a nasty pest provides extremely valuable information to scientists hoping to reduce the negative impact of the pest on sheep. Although the primary motivation for the research was economic impact, I don’t see that as a problem in this case. Not only will this help restore the livelihoods of people who depend on the Australian sheep industry, it will also prevent sheep from becoming infected with such a painful and deadly parasite.  Additionally, I was unable to find any major ecological contribution or importance of blowflies.


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