A Cal Poly Pomona biology professor and a world-wide consortium of researchers has sequenced the genome of the fly responsible for spreading African sleeping sickness, opening doors for new ways of controlling the disease. Their research has landed them on the cover of the latest edition of Science, one of the top scientific journals in the world.
African Sleeping Sickness is a fatal blood parasite that sickens thousands of people every year, and makes raising cattle impossible in many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, costing billions to the African economy. The disease, which is fatal if untreated, is transmitted by the tsetse fly, an insect that feeds on blood much like a mosquito.
When an individual is infected, they first suffer from fever headaches and joint paint. If left untreated, the disease eventually results in damage to internal organs, disrupted sleeping patterns, coma and death.
So far, researchers have been unable to develop a vaccine against the disease, so any efforts to limit its spread must focus on the flies that carry it. It is hoped that the genome will provide biologists with new tools for controlling the flies, also known by their Latin name, glossina.
“This project is an important first step in understanding many different aspects of this fly’s biology, including understanding how it is able to be such an efficient vector of human disease, says Cal Poly Pomona Biology Professor Peter Arensburger, who participated in the project. “It establishes a baseline of understanding that future researchers will be able to build on to develop methods to slow, or even stop, disease transmission.”
The International Glossina Genome Initiative, as the project is called, began in 2003 and included 146 scientists, with half of them coming from African nations. Arensburger joined the effort in 2011.
His specialty is something called transposable elements — pieces of DNA that are able to jump around within an organism’s genes. Study of the tsetse fly transposable elements is part of a larger study by Arensburger aimed at understanding how transposable elements have evolved in insects.
“Much like a book is divided into sentences, paragraphs and chapters, a genome is divided into sections called genes,” he says. “Determining where genes and other genome features begin and end was an important aspect of this project.”
To do that, Arensburger and his students have developed specialized computer programs to scan the millions of bits of information contained in a genome. That software allows them to spot transposable elements more easily.
The abstract for the paper published by the International Glossina Genome Initiative can be read here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6182/380