All 14,544 genes of the Australian sheep blowfly (Lucilia cuprina) have been identified by an international research team led by the University of Melbourne. The research, published in Nature Communications, provides insights into the fly’s molecular biology, how it interacts with the sheep’s biology and, importantly, shows its potential to develop insecticide resistance.
This blow fly is responsible for about $280 million in losses to Australia’s sheep industry each year from flystrike. Blow fly maggots live on the skin of sheep and invade open wounds, where they feed on tissue and cause severe skin disease, known as myiasis or flystrike. It is an aggressive and notoriously difficult pest to control.
Around 2,000 genes not seen before in any other organism were discovered. These genes can now be investigated as potential drug and vaccine targets. Lead researcher on the project, Dr. Clare Anstead, of the University of Melbourne Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, said the genome map has “limitless potential” for fighting the blow fly at home and abroad.
“Lucilia is a beautiful name, but it is an extremely nasty parasite,” she said. “The sheep is literally eaten alive. It’s horrific. The Lucilia species are responsible for more than 90 percent of flystrike in Australia and New Zealand. This fly is especially good at evolving to resist insecticides. There has been a massive amount of research into prevention and control of flystrike, from developing a vaccine, new insecticides, to targeting weak areas of the fly, and even biological control with bacteria and fungi. But none are completely effective. It’s exciting that we have now identified more than 2,000 genes that have never been seen in any other animal or plant. Some of these ‘orphan’ genes hold the key to the parasitic relationship between the blow fly and the sheep. They could be targeted to develop a completely new method of control.”
University of Melbourne Professor Robin Gasser, who oversaw the research, said, “If you want to develop effective interventions against this fly, you need to know it inside out and understand its biology, starting by identifying all the genes. And, we have done that.”
To decode the genome, researchers used a combination of supercomputing and bioinformatic techniques to handle huge reams of data. They aim to use a powerful new technology called CRISPR to investigate switching off a number of genes, including the gene responsible for the blowfly’s extraordinary sense of smell.
“Flies have an extremely sophisticated sense of smell. They can smell the difference between sheep that are resistant to the fly and those that aren’t,” said Professor Phil Batterham at the University of Melbourne. “We want to produce a fly that cannot smell, so that we can understand how important that sense of smell is in the initiation of flystrike.”
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