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Flystrike vaccine work shows promise

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Sheep farmers across Australia have been trapping blowflies and posting them to Melbourne to help scientists create a vaccine to protect sheep against flystrike. Blowflies laying eggs and subsequent maggot growth in sheep costs Australian wool growers $280 million each year in lost productivity and time. It can cause a slow and painful death if not treated and is regarded by the country’s peak woolgrower organisation as a significantly adverse state of animal welfare for sheep.

The University of Melbourne is conducting a study of the blowfly genome to find what genes are important when fly maggots are growing in sheep. School of BioSciences research associate Trent Perry said once those particular genes are found, scientists would investigate if they can be effectively shut down by a vaccine or any other control. It follows research published in 2015 where the blowfly’s entire genome was mapped.

Genes provide clues for control
“What we’re hoping to use the genome for is to try and understand what genes are important when the blowfly maggots are starting to parasitise sheep,” Dr Perry said. “In order to look at these genes we need to have a great blueprint, and that’s what the genome provides us with. We’re trying to understand what genes might be critical for that development phase of the maggots. The longer term aim is to try and understand if we were to inhibit those either through vaccine or other means, whether that would provide some better control.”
To find the most common blowfly genes, a broad spectrum of fly samples from across Australia were required for the research. Dr Perry said farmers were happy to assist, and some were not deterred from collecting a blowfly sample when the provided traps didn’t work.

“Some farmers were kind enough to get out some nets and actually catch some flies that were hanging around the sheep,” he said. “Others went to extreme lengths and collected maggots right from strike sites, and all of those have been very useful. We’ve processed over 130 samples from 18 different locations.

“We’re about to send them off for sequencing, which will then present us with a lot of work trying to match all that data back to our genome and then look at the genes that we’re interested in.”

Vaccine trial could be within two or three years
“We still don’t know much about the biology of the blowfly. Until we really understand how much of an effect you can have on them when we impact those genes, that’s going to be the time when we can understand whether this is most likely to function as a good vaccine and a good level of protection,” Dr Perry said.

Dr Perry said even if the research is positive, a commercially available vaccine for sheep producers was still many years away. He was hopeful a laboratory trial of a potential vaccine could be underway in two to three years. “I think there’s a pretty clear outcome from this,” he said “Our aim is to really understand what’s critical for the flies to grow and work out an effective way to stop that from happening.  “Then we’ve provided a really valuable control measure that growers are going to be able to use to be able to prevent flystrike. I think we’ve given ourselves the best possible chance of coming up with the good candidates and at this stage that’s what we can aim to do.”

The Genetics of Blowfly Parasitism project has been running for approximately two years, it was funded by Australian Wool Innovation.

Source: ABC Rural

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