Science

Hijacking house-flies to monitor disease outbreaks

Hijacking house-flies to monit...
The bacteria-carrying capacity of flies may be worse than we thought, but new research suggests it could be harnessed for a positive use
The bacteria-carrying capacity of flies may be worse than we thought, but new research suggests it could be harnessed for a positive use
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The bacteria-carrying capacity of flies may be worse than we thought, but new research suggests it could be harnessed for a positive use
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The bacteria-carrying capacity of flies may be worse than we thought, but new research suggests it could be harnessed for a positive use

In news bound to make the commongermophobe even more paranoid about that fly buzzing around thepicnic table, a team of researchers has found that house flies andblow flies can spread a whole host of bacteria that was previously unsuspected to hitch a ride on the insects. The recently published study also suggests that a fly'sbacteria-carrying capability could be hijacked and used in a publichealth surveillance capacity to track pathogen outbreaks.

We've long known that the commonhousefly can spread a number of diseases, but a new study has justrevealed that we may have underestimated the volume, and breadth, ofbacteria that these annoying insects can transmit. An internationalteam led by Nanyang Technological University developed a new way tocollect flies without contaminating them with other microorganisms and then sequence theDNA of every part of their body. This allowed species of bacteria they picked up on their travels to be identified.

"Our study has shown that bacteriacan 'fly' by hitching a ride on common flies," says StepheanSchuster, a research director leading the study. "They pick up themicrobiome on their feet, spread them across their wings in a similarway like how we might comb our hair, and then proceed to dispersethem on surfaces that they land on."

The researchers sequenced the geneticmaterial of 116 species of housefly and blow fly. After separating outall the genetic data that corresponded with the fly's own chromosomesand symbiotic bacteria, the remaining DNA and RNA was sorted againsta database of all known bacteria.

The study frighteningly found thatflies have the capacity to carry, and spread, hundreds of differentbacteria, some linked to human diseases. One bacteria, for example,called Helicobacter pylori was found on some flies. This bacteria, which is known to causestomach ulcers and is a major risk factor for gastric cancer, had never before been shown to be transmittedby flies.

It's not all bad news though, with theresearchers suggesting this discovery could be put to a positive use.The study notes that lab-reared flies could be successfully bred tobe germ-free and released into the environment to act as bacterial surveillance drones. With the ability to get into tiny nooks and crannies, the flies could then be recaptured using bait traps and their microbiome sequenced to reveal the types of bacteria they had encountered on their travels.

"Such 'autonomous bionic drones'could be particularly useful in agriculture, if we want to detect aplant pathogen outbreak," says Professor Schuster. "Through regular monitoring, if weknow that a particular pathogen is affecting the crops and isbecoming an outbreak, then farmers could organize a targetedtreatment that only eradicates that pathogen, leaving the other partsof the ecosystem intact."

The study was published in the journalScientific Reports.

Source: Nanyang TechnologicalUniversity, Singapore

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