Government awards work on genetic control of flystrike

Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences parasitology researcher Clare Anstead has received the Australian Wool Innovation Award at the 2017 Science Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on 7 March.

The awards are a competitive grants program that provides funding for innovative research projects to benefit Australia’s rural industries.

Dr Anstead led a team which mapped the genome of the Australian sheep blowfly Lucilia cuprina, which causes flystrike in sheep and costs farmers hundreds of millions each year in Australia alone.

Flystrike occurs when the parasitic fly lays its eggs around a sheep’s rear or open wounds causing inflammation, blood poisoning and millions of deaths a year.

Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Chief Scientist Kim Ritman (left), Clare Anstead (middle) and Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Anne Ruston (right).

Dr Anstead’s team is now incorporating advanced sequencing technologies including PacBio and Chicago HiRise to significantly enhance the existing genome, which will allow them to curate gene families of interest.

This includes over 2,000 "orphan" genes which have not been found outside the Lucilia genome and could offer researchers new avenues for control of the parasite.

“This award will allow us to start to test function of these genes using the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing tool with colleagues Professor Phil Batterham and Dr Trent Perry from Bio21,” she said.

Dr Anstead told the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences that she finds Lucilia fascinating as a parasite to study because of its fast adaption to insecticides, making them hard to control.

"We’re coming at it from a genomics approach,” she said.

"We can start identifying the genes that are specific to Lucilia, and those are the ones that we’re hoping to target down the track as a completely novel means of control."

Read more about Dr Anstead's research on Pursuit.

The awards attract applications from young Australians 18 to 35 years – scientists, researchers, innovators – whose projects demonstrate a fresh way of thinking about and resolving issues for agriculture.

Story by Stuart Winthrope.