Validating nanopore sequencing technology for front-line pathogen vector complex studies

Can DNA sequencing technology help stop the spread of river blindness?

Onchocerciasis – also known as river blindness – strikes 15.5 million people. The disease is caused by infection with a parasitic worm that is transmitted by the bite of a blackfly. Most infections occur in Africa’s sub-Sahara, near rivers. This is where the blackfly larvae develop while fixing itself to rocks and feeding off passing debris within running water.

There is no vaccine to protect people from this illness. Therefore, public health programs must focus instead on detecting infected blackfly populations and preventing the spread of the parasite.

Not long ago, it would be inconceivable to reliably measure the frequency of infected blackflies within populations, by sampling the DNA of many thousands of individuals at a time. Yet the power of DNA sequencing is no longer restricted to high-income, high-powered laboratories. Researchers from Ghana, the United Kingdom and the United States are testing a new DNA sequencing technology (called MinION) that is proven to work in the field for Onchocerciasis control.

The team first characterized the blackfly genome, allowing to identify the structure of their natural populations. The team next calibrates real-time sequencing results from the MinION instrument, which is run from only a laptop computer, to positively detect the ratio of infected versus non-infected blackflies. This low-cost and portable technology can potentially provide an early warning system for local communities, while also providing new information on infection rates, migration routes, and the conditions needed to contain this cause of people’s suffering.