It is a common understanding that we as living humans are made up of more microorganisms than we are made up of our own actual human cells. They are nearly ubiquitous in our bodies—on the skin, in our mouths, lungs, guts, et cetera. Scientists are only just starting to understand what effects these microorganisms have on our body functions. When there is a disturbance in the normal makeup of these microbiota (microorganism colonies) in our guts, it is common to see some serious illnesses arise. Recent studies have been performed, which generated data that suggest that the microbiota in the gut may have an effect on our mental health and our moods.
We are starting to see how important these organisms are in humans, and we are starting to look into their importance in other animals as well. Rita Rio, an associate professor of Biology at West Virginia University, has just been awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to investigate the relationship between the tsetse fly’s gut microbiota and the parasite that it carries—a trypanosome that causes African sleeping sickness.
When an infected tsetse fly bites a human or an animal, it transmits this devastating disease to the host. However, some tsetse flies are incapable of effectively carrying and transmitting the disease to another host. Why is this? That is the question that Rio wants to answer. It has been hypothesized that certain bacteria that make up the tsetse fly’s gut microbiota can have an inhibitory effect on the fly’s likelihood of passing on the disease. If this turns out to be the case, then scientists will have a new way of controlling the spread of African sleeping sickness—by manipulating the gut microbiota composition in the tsetse fly.
African sleeping sickness is a disease that does not get nearly enough attention as far as publicity, research, and treatment. Fortunately, the gut microbiota of the tsetse fly is relatively simple compared to most other animals, and so this type of investigation should be much easier than the research scientists have been doing on human gut microbiota. This type of research may also help us better understand the human gut microbiota.