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SCELSE researchers show houseflies and blowflies have host-specific microbiomes and demonstrate their potential use in disease surveillance
24 November 2017

An international research team led by Prof. Stephan Schuster at SCELSE found that houseflies and blowflies contain a host-specific microbiome, but with more than 55% of the microbial species shared between the two carrion flies. The results suggest that the flies harbour a stochastic component in their microbiome, serving as mechanical vectors of bacteria largely derived from contact with the environment. Experiments on the mechanisms of dispersal revealed that the flies mainly spread bacteria via their legs, and not as much from the contact of the abdomen or mouthparts as previously thought.

"Carrion flies have microscopic hairs on every part of the body excluding the eye and these bristles make them the perfect carrier for pollen and also bacteria. It is an evolutionarily optimised vehicle for the dispersal of microorganisms in the environment," said first author Dr Ana Carolina Martins Junqueira, previously a senior research fellow at SCELSE and currently a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Using a newly developed method to collect and extract the genetic material of flies and associated microorganisms without contamination, the team sequenced 116 houseflies and blowflies from different environments on three continents, and performed detailed genomic and metagenomic analyses of the host-associated microbiome at the species level.

The researchers found a surprisingly high incidence of the human pathogen Helicobacter pylori on the bodies of several blowflies caught in the wild in Brazil, mainly concentrated on the legs and wings. Previous studies of H. pylori focused on human-to-human modes of transmission, but these new findings showed that further study of fly-mediated H. pylori transmission is warranted. In addition, the stochastic distribution of H. pylori demonstrates the potential of flies as proxies for environmental, agricultural and public health surveillance.

"To date, diseases transmitted by a mechanical vector like flies have been a major overlooked pathway by both the medical and academic community. This is a great example of how observations from basic research on how diseases spread might be translated into viable and useful applications, opening up new avenues for future technology," said Prof. Schuster, senior author of the study.

This research is published in Scientific Reports and has been featured on many international news outlets and websites throughout the world.

Please click HERE for publication details.

Please click HERE to view the coverage of this paper in the media.