An international team of 140 researchers, including experts from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Yale School of Public Health, has successfully sequenced the genetic code of the tsetse fly, opening the door to scientific breakthroughs that could reduce or end the scourge of African sleeping sickness in sub-Saharan Africa. Tsetse flies are the sole insect vectors of sleeping sickness, a disease that threatens the health of millions of people and devastates livestock herds.
The study was published April 25, 2014 in the journal Science.
“We are fortunate to have had such dedicated partners across the globe. Now tsetse research will be possible by Africans at the site of infection in Africa using the latest genomics techniques,” said Winston Hide, associate professor of bioinformatics, Department of Biostatistics, at HSPH and principal faculty of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Hide, also affiliated with the University of the Western Cape, S. Africa, helped initiate the collaborative research project in the early 2000s, along with researchers from Africa and around the globe, with seed funding from the World Health Organization.
The researchers had to overcome numerous challenges—technical, biological, and economic—in order to decipher the complete genetic sequence of the tsetse fly, which is slightly larger than a common housefly. This genetic blueprint—essentially a “parts list”—is expected to accelerate research into the tsetse fly’s unique biology and promote the development of improved tsetse control methods. While there are drugs to combat sleeping sickness, they are expensive, have many undesirable side effects, and are difficult to administer in wide swaths of rural Africa where the disease is most pronounced. Left untreated, sleeping sickness is fatal.
Support for the project included the WellcomeTrust, National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, the Ambrose Monell Foundation and the South African Medical Research Council. The genome was sequenced and assembled at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Lead authors were Geoffrey Attardo and Serap Aksoy at Yale. Data from the project is available at www.vectorbase.org.
Read a Business Day article: African scientists sequence genome of the tsetse fly
Read a National Geographic article: Sequencing of Tsetse Genome Fly Reveals Surprises that May Save Lives (registration required)