Flies Carry Hundreds Of Bacteria But Can Help Monitor Disease Outbreaks: Study

By Athena Chan | Nov 25, 2017 05:20 AM EST

A new study finds that flies could carry several hundred pathogens in their bodies that they can spread to the environment. Despite this, researchers believe that they can also use flies to monitor disease outbreaks.

Bacteria-Ridden Flies

It's no secret that flies are a fan of landing and feasting on feces and rotting food which is why we swat them away from our own food to avoid it being contaminated. As it turns out, this is actually a smart move because an international research team found that houseflies and blowflies could carry several hundred species of bacteria, including some that are potentially harmful to humans.

The team collected 116 houseflies and blowflies and sequenced their genetic material as well as those of the microorganisms attached to their bodies. One such organism that they found "hitching a ride" with the fly is the Helicobacter pylori which can cause stomach ulcers in humans. Interestingly, the H. pylori is known to be passed from one person to another via fluids. This is the first time that the pathogen is seen to be spread by flies.

Researchers state that flies likely step on the microbes which then attach to their feet and they pass it onto their wings as well as on the surfaces they land on. It's worth noting that flies are important members of the ecosystem as pollinators but it's also because of this that they are effective carriers of pathogens. For instance, the Carrion flies have tiny hairs covering their body, making them excellent pollinators, but unfortunately, excellent carriers of bacteria as well.

'Biological Drones' For Outbreak Surveillance

Disturbing as their findings are, they do believe that this is precisely why flies could become useful for public health. The idea is to breed germ-free flies and release them into an environment where they would pick up the bacteria they encounter. When they are recaptured afterward, experts can have an idea regarding the types of bacteria present in the particular setting.

As "bionic drones," researchers believe that the flies could be beneficial in early warning systems for disease outbreaks and even in agriculture. This way, the pathogen could be dealt with before it spreads.

"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 Professor Stephan C. Schuster of Nanyang Technological University, lead author of the study.

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

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