Sequencing Tsetse Fly Genome Reveals Surprises That May Save Lives

tsetse flyThe genome of the tsetse fly—a disease-ridden insect with surprisingly mammalian biology that stalks the people and livestock of sub-Saharan Africa—has been decoded, a team of 146 scientists announced today in Science.

The sequence has revealed chinks in its strange biology that could help alleviate the human suffering and economic losses caused by the trypanosome parasite it transmits.

The tsetse fly has long been an oddball among disease-transmitting insects. The fly carries the parasite for sleeping sickness, which strikes about 20,000 people a year and puts an estimated 70 million people in sub-Saharan Africa at risk. And since the disease also affects livestock, it makes animal husbandry all but impossible in some parts of the region, exacting a severe economic toll.

But these bloodsuckers are also oddly mammalian. Females get pregnant with single young that they nourish with milk inside a womb. The female then gives birth, much like squeezing a slug of toothpaste from a tube, to a single undulating larva nearly her own size. And a female tsetse fly produces only eight to ten offspring her whole life.

“If you can eliminate one female, it can have a big effect on the population,” said Serap Aksoy, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut.

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