Scientists Use Snail Genomics To Fight Deadly Parasitic Disease

Medical microscopy of schistosome, a parasitic flatworm. Pan Xunbin/Shutterstock

An incredible international team of over 100 scientists has just completed a crucial step that might soon help fight a terrible parasitic disease known as schistosomiasis, which kills to up two hundred thousands people every year.

The team, led by researchers at the University of New Mexico, has completed an in-depth analysis of the genome of the tropical Ram’s Horn snail (Biomphalaria glabrata), which is crucial to the development of the parasite. This research, published in Nature Communication, might tell us how to take the snail out of the equation and stop the parasite before it can affect humans.

“Sequencing and characterizing the genome of this snail has given us a lot of information into its biology,” lead author Professor Coenraad Adema, from the University of New Mexico, said in a statement. “It has informed us on animal evolution and supports the drive to minimize the impact of infectious disease on global health.”

The parasite is a flat worm. It infects these freshwater snails at the beginning of its life cycle, and as it develops it takes over the snail’s reproductive system and metabolic processes. When it is fully developed, it leaves the snail but stays in the water. There it can survive, waiting, until it comes in contact with humans. Then it breaks their skin and begins to reproduce.

“Understanding the snail’s genome gives us many avenues to cut the snail out of this parasite’s lifecycle, which one day may lead to the elimination of this disease,” Adema added. 

“After malaria, this is the worst parasitic disease on the planet. So, being able to do work that may help improve global human health outcomes it is a very important motivation for my research.”

Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia or snail fever, affects the urinary tract and intestine of the people who become infected. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2015, 66.5 million people were reported to have been treated for the disease. Snail fever is one of the neglected tropical diseases.

The research has an impact beyond disease prevention. Researchers are uncovering the full genome of more and more species, which is heralding a new and deeper understanding of the biological links between every organism on Earth.

“This is an important contribution to better understanding infectious disease,” he said. “It also gives us information on regulation of gene expression, comparative immunology, embryology, general biology of snails, animal evolution, and many other things."

The WHO hopes to eliminate snail fever by 2025, and this research might give scientists the right tools to get rid of it once and for all.

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