Researchers in Britain have been awarded a £680,000 grant to sequence and study the genetic makeup of a biting midge that can carry several dangerous animals viruses, including African horse sickness.
African horse sickness has already been detected in southern Europe. There are fears that the disease could seriously damage the British horse industry if it reaches its shores.
Culicoides midges are also responsible for the spread of the closely related bluetongue virus, which affects livestock.
Researchers at the Institute for Animal Health will receive the funding from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council for the research.
There are more than 1500 species of Culicoides midges in the world and this will be the first complete genome sequence.
The grant will enable scientists to look for the genetics behind the midge’s ability to transmit globally important diseases of livestock.
With new viruses emerging all the time – midges are in the frame for bringing the new Schmallenberg virus to Britain earlier this year – and the door to the UK seemingly wide open for insects to blow across from mainland Europe, the research is considered vital to protect the agricultural economy and future food security.
The knowledge gained from this project to sequence and annotate the genome of Culicoides sonorensis will open up new avenues for prevention and control of some of the most important diseases of livestock such as bluetongue and African horse sickness.
Dr Mark Fife, Head of genetics and genomics at the institute, will lead the project.
“We know that some midges are better at transmitting viruses than others and we have good evidence to suggest that this is down to differences in their genes; the genome sequence will enable us to say which genes are responsible,” he said.
The institute has colonies of Culicoides sonorensis in a state-of-the-art insectary.
These colonies are very well established and a great deal is known about their ability to transmit viruses. This resource will allow the researchers to see which genetic variations might lead to differences in the relationship between insect and virus.
The project will be a collaboration with Dr Paul Kersey at the European Bioinformatics Institute and the work will also be enabled by facilities and expertise at The BBSRC Genome Analysis Centre.
Fife said: “Once we have the sequence the biggest challenge is then putting it all together so we can identify all of the genes and understand what they may do inside the insect.”
In 2007 bluetongue virus arrived in the UK from the continent – an event that the team at the institute was able to predict.
A successful voluntary vaccination scheme was implemented in at-risk areas and the outbreak was controlled, saving the UK economy an estimated £485 million.
Dr Simon Carpenter, the institute’s head of entomology, said: “Knowing when and where infected midges are likely to come into contact with animals is absolutely vital to prevention and control of midge-borne diseases.
“We monitor midge populations across the UK all the time but we don’t always know how good each group is going to be at transmitting viruses. This project will help us to target strategies for prevention and control of diseases far more precisely.”