Human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, is a parasitic disease transmitted by the tsetse fly (pictured). Seventy million people throughout sub-Saharan Africa are at risk from the illness, which can be fatal if left untreated. As yet, scientists have failed to develop a vaccine against the disease and the parasite is showing growing signs of resistance to current drug treatments. But this month, an international team of 146 researchers have made a major breakthrough. They cracked the entire tsetse fly genome – which is twice as large as the fruit fly’s – and analysed 12,000 genes that control protein activity. This has revealed the key genetic processes involved in infection, opening doors for new ways to control the disease. In addition, they made a fascinating discovery: a single gene, rh5, explains the fly’s unusual attraction to blue-black colours, which has already been exploited for trap development.
Written by Nick Kennedy