Aussie scientists map sheep blowfly genome, discover 2,000 new genes

Australian sheep blowfly--Courtesy of Quentin J. Lang, University of Melbourne

Lucilia cuprina is an insect with a beautiful name and striking green-and-red body, but looks are deceiving: The creature, better known as the Australian sheep blowfly, is an insidious parasite that causes an estimated $280 million in losses to the Australian sheep industry per year. Now, scientists at the University of Melbourne have decoded the insect's genome--opening up new avenues of research that could lead to better methods for controlling and ultimately defeating the pest.

Blowflies live on the skin of sheep, causing a severe dermatologic disease called myiasis or flystrike. The insect has proven difficult to control because it quickly evolves to become resistant to pesticides.

The research team, whose work was published in a recent edition of the journal Nature Communications, identified all 14,544 genes of the blowfly, including 2,000 never seen in other organisms. By scrutinizing those genes, the scientists hope to discover how the parasite impacts sheep biology, and how it develops resistance to chemical pesticides.

"Some of these 'orphan' genes hold the key to the parasitic relationship between the blowfly and the sheep," said Clare Anstead, the lead researcher and a scientist at the University of Melbourne Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, in a press release about the project. "They could be targeted to develop a completely new method of control."

The Australian researchers conducted the sequencing in partnership with the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center, with funding from the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute and Australian Wool Innovation.

Now that they have a complete map of the Lucilia cuprina genome, the researchers plan to isolate the genes that facilitate the interaction between the pest and the sheep. From there, they hope to develop a vaccine that would target vital proteins in blowfly maggots, selectively killing them without harming the sheep.

- here's the press release
- get more in this video from the University of Melbourne
- access the Nature Communications article here