The genome of the tsetse fly has recently been sequenced and the success has been gaining attention in mainstream media through the New York Times and National Geographic. Why is the tsetse fly important and what’s so special about its genome? The tsetse fly transmits human African trypanosomiasis, commonly known as “sleeping sickness.” Trypanosomiasis is a vector-borne parasitic disease with two main types, depending on the parasite (Tranosoma brucei gabiense causes 98% of cases, trpanosoma brucei rhodesiense causes the other 2%). Trypoanosomiasis occurs in 36 Sub-Saharan African countries where tsetse flies are found. Animals can also be affected by tyrpanosomiasis, and can serve as reservoirs for human pathogen parasites. Thus, animal husbandry is more difficult in areas with tsetse flies, which are mostly rural.
There are many interesting discoveries about tsetse flies that have been made in the process of sequencing its genome. For example, female tsetse flies give birth to one larva at a time and only produce about 8-10 offspring during their life span, unlike mosquitoes that can produce about a thousand offspring. Therefore, eliminating one female tsetse fly can have a big effect on the population, according to Dr. Serap Aksoy of the Yale School of Public Health. Even though tsetse flies feed on blood, females nourish their young in the womb with milk, a surprising characteristic that somewhat resembles mammalian care for offspring.
The Aksoy lab at Yale is responsible for sequencing the tsetse fly genome. They hope that this will aid current control methods and lead to the development of new strategies to reduce or even eliminate the transmission of trypanosomiasis in Sub-Saharan Africa. One line of attack is targeting the single gene that regulates milk production in female flies. The idea is that less milk will cause the flies to be less fertile. Other possibilities are vaccines and/or repellants that target specific aspects of the tsetse fly genome.