Deadly fly's strange vulnerability: its breast milk

Scientists have unraveled the genome of the tsetse fly after a 10-year effort, and the development could save Africa from the devastating effects of the fatal infection it carries known as sleeping sickness, reports LiveScience.

While the disease—one that drives its victims crazy in rabies-like fashion and is fatal without treatment—hits about 20,000 a year, it tends to surge in epidemics and thus endangers an estimated 70 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, reports National Geographic.

A form of it also attacks livestock. The decoding of the genome gives scientists the potential to identify and attack vulnerabilities of the insect, including a particularly unusual one.

“Tsetse biology is just freaky,” an insect neurobiologist at Rockefeller University tells the New York Times. “This is an insect that breastfeeds its children.” Scientists found the particular gene that regulates milk production, and if they can disable it through chemicals, the tsetse larvae will starve.

Another option is to manipulate genes so the fly rejects the parasites that cause sleeping sickness in the first place. One expert at Johns Hopkins calls the paper "really kind of a landmark in the molecular genetics of neglected tropical diseases." (Click for four more of the week's fascinating discoveries.)

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