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Beyond the Bale : September 2015
ON FARM 31 Researchers have decoded the Australian sheep blowfly genome, adding ammunition in the battle to protect the nation's sheep flock from flystrike. Around 2000 genes not seen before in any other organism were discovered as part of the research. These genes can now be investigated as potential drug and vaccine targets. All 14,544 genes of the blowfly were identified by the international research team, led by the University of Melbourne in partnership with the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center. The research was co-funded by AWI and the United States National Human Genome Research Institute. Over the past decade, on a range of three associated projects, AWI has invested up to $4 million around the genetic and genomic opportunities to control the Australian sheep blowfly Lucilia cuprina. The research, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, provides insights into the blowfly's molecular biology, how it interacts with the sheep's biology and, importantly, shows its potential to develop insecticide resistance. The Australian sheep blowfly is now responsible for about $173 million in losses to Australia's sheep industry each year from flystrike. Lead researcher on the project Dr Clare Anstead of the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences said the genome map has "limitless potential" for fighting the blowfly at home and abroad. "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 2000 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 blowfly 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, added: "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." Insecticides can be effective, however, the blowflies rapidly evolve to develop resistance to these chemicals. Professor Phil Batterham, at the University of Melbourne's School of Biosciences, says this work now enables researchers to predict gene mutation in flies that could make them resistant to chemicals, which means we may be able to avoid the type of crisis that the medical community now faces with antibiotic resistance in bacteria. "The next step is to isolate the parasite's 'Achilles' heel' -- genes that allow the parasitic interaction between the maggots and the sheep," Prof Batterham said. "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. 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." Animal welfare and flystrike prevention is AWI's number one research priority. Since 2005, considerable progress in the R&D program has been made, with AWI investing $47 million in health and welfare R&D activities, including $28 million specifically in breech flystrike prevention. AWI remains committed to the fast-tracked research, development and extension program to reduce the reliance on mulesing and improve the lifetime welfare outcome for sheep. AWI's work in this area is summarised at www.wool.com/flystrike AUSTRALIAN SHEEP BLOWFLY GENOME MAPPED University of Melbourne researchers have identified all 14,544 genes that make up the Australian sheep blowfly. This means that with the genome sequence of this parasite identified, researchers can start working on a range of options (vaccines, insecticides etc) to give long term protection against the damage that this parasite can do. University of Melbourne parasitologist Dr Clare Anstead has led a team of scientists to index 14,544 genes of the Australian sheep blowfly.