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Midge genome: Reinforcing the war against viruses

9 July 2012

Researchers at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) have been awarded £680K by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which also awards strategic funding to IAH, to sequence and study the genome of a biting midge that is responsible for spreading serious viral diseases.

There are over 1500 species of Culicoides midges in the world and this will be the first complete genome sequence.

  Sequencing the midge genome

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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 brand new Schmallenberg virus to the UK earlier this year - and the door to the UK seemingly wide open for insects to blow across from mainland Europe, this research will be 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 IAH will lead the project, he said "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."

IAH 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 (TGAC).

Dr Paul Kersey commented "EMBL-EBI's contribution to the project will be in the organisation and interpretation of the large quantity of data produced, and disseminating it to the scientific community through the Ensembl Metazoa portal.

"Our team has, through their involvement in VectorBase, previously been involved in the annotation of vectors of human disease.

"Ensembl already contains the genomes of cattle and sheep, so we are in a unique position to build an open, accessible and high-quality resource for this research community."

Dr Fife added "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 IAH 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 £485M.

Dr Simon Carpenter, Head of Entomology at IAH 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. At IAH 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."

ENDS

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M (2011-2012), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk.
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes.