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NMSU professor on international team that cracked tsetse fly’s genetic code

New Mexico State University assistant professor Immo Hansen is among members of the International Glossina Genome Initative, whose work on mapping the DNA of the first species of tsetse fly is published in this week’s edition of “Science.”

Man wearing lab glasses and lab coat looking into a white box
Biology assistant professor Immo Hansen works in his laboratory at New Mexico State University where he researches mosquitoes. Hansen is part of an international team of scientists who mapped the DNA of the tsetse fly. Their research is featured in the April 25 edition of “Science.” (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The paper summarizes findings that may lead to improved techniques in protecting humans against African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, a widespread tropical disease that is always fatal if not treated. The disease is spread by the bite of an infected tsetse fly.

“Detection and treatment of this disease is expensive, difficult and dangerous,” said Hansen, assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Disease prevention by vaccine development does not appear feasible so the best way to approach it is by vector control through techniques such as trapping, pesticide treatment and sterile male release strategies. The information in the genome will provide an invaluable tool for researchers to improve current tsetse control methods.”

The paper, titled “Genome Sequence of the Tsetse Fly (Glossina morsitans): Vector of African Trypanosomiasis,” details the research conducted during a 10-year period through collaboration among more than 140 scientists from around the world. Their research is featured in the April 25 edition of “Science.”

“The data gathered as a result of this collaboration could not have been achieved by any single institution,” Hansen said. “A massive number of scientists have contributed expertise and skills to complete this difficult project, which will provide a foundational resource for researchers in insect vector biology.”

The size of the tsetse fly genome is about 10 percent the size of the human genome.

Hansen’s role in the research involved being “signaling group leader” of the project, while NMSU graduate student David Price performed duties of metabolism annotation.

“My work as the signaling group leader entailed recruiting a group of experts to annotate tsetse genes that are part of cellular signal transduction pathways,” Hansen said. “These collaborators are from the U.S., Belgium and South Africa and were assigned to specific projects.”

Price, NMSU graduate student in the molecular biology program, conducted a thorough examination of the tsetse genome to identify regions which make up genes for nutrient transporters, the structure of these genes, that they are likely to transport and how their structure and number compared to other organisms such as mosquitoes and flies.

“This work gives us insight into how blood feeding disease vectors process and use the blood and will make future research much easier and faster to conduct,” Price said.

Beyond disease control, the genome is an important resource for evolutionary biology according to Hansen. Tsetse flies are unique from the majority of other insects in multiple aspects of their biology. In mosquitoes, only females take blood, in tsetse, the males also take blood meals and are involved in disease transmission. Tsetse flies develop a single embryo at a time inside their bodies. They have a milk gland that produces tsetse milk to feed the developing larvae.

A video of a tsetse fly giving birth to a larva is available at: http://medicine.yale.edu/labs/aksoy/www/Media%20Pages/Videos/Tsetse%20Birth.html.

The tsetse genome project began in 2003 with seed funds from the World Health Organization. The costs of more than $10 million were funded through multiple sources including the National Institutes of Health, Wellcome Trust, RIKEN and Genoscope.

The biggest challenge for the group has been raising funds to keep the consortium going to complete the project and to assemble the information from so many groups into the paper for “Science.”

The data is now available publicly at www.vectorbase.com