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Tsetse Fly Genome Decoded in Fight Against African Sleeping Sickness

An international team of scientists has deciphered the genetic code of the tsetse fly, the bloodsucking insect that spreads deadly African sleeping sickness, with the hope that its biological secrets can be exploited to eradicate this malady.

The findings announced on Thursday were the culmination of a multimillion-dollar, decade-long effort involving more than 140 scientists from 78 research institutions in 18 countries.

The fly's bite carries a parasitic microorganism that causes sleeping sickness in people in sub-Saharan Africa and a form of the disease in animals that can devastate livestock herds.

Sequencing the tsetse fly's genome exposed the molecular underpinnings of its weird biology: It gives live birth to young rather than laying eggs like other insects; it nourishes larvae inside the uterus with a form of milk; it is oddly attracted to the colors blue and black; and it feeds exclusively on blood.

The scientists expressed optimism that the genetic blueprint could lead to new ways to combat the tsetse fly like a chemical that could interfere with its reproduction or ways to improve existing traps used to kill it.

"Like any such discoveries, there will be new leads that we might not see now. I am, however, optimistic that unique aspects of tsetse fly biology will lead to new methods to fight the disease," said one of the researchers, Daniel Masiga, a molecular biologist at the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya.

"If you could come up with a tsetse-specific reproductive inhibitor that has no mammalian toxicity, that would be ideal," added biologist Geoffrey Attardo of the Yale School of Public Health, another of the researchers.

The tsetse fly genome was double the size of a fruit fly's but only a tenth as big as a human's genome. It has about 12,000 genes and 366 million letters of genetic code.

African sleeping sickness, also known as trypanosomiasis, is a widespread tropical disease throughout sub-Saharan Africa that is fatal if not treated. Its form in animals is called nagana.

The study was published in the journal Science, with accompanying research appearing in other journals.

— Will Dunham, Reuters