Schistosomiasis. Most of us have never heard that word. And fewer still know what it is. But for more than 600 million people at risk – most of whom who live in developing nations – it’s a debilitating and occasionally deadly affliction.
Also known as snail fever, schistosomiasis is a disease caused by parasitic flatworms that are transmitted via infected freshwater snails. More than 1.5 billion people, or about 24 percent of the world’s population, are infected by such parasites, and schistosomiasis is second only to malaria in terms of its negative impact on public health worldwide.
Recently, Andy Shedlock from the Department of Biology, led a team of international researchers over a five-year effort to sequence and analyze the first snail genome, a species known to be a carrier for schistosomiasis. The group’s work was published late this spring in the journal Nature Communications.
“Our project was heavily promoted by the World Health Organization and is an important new resource and scientific reference that will be utilized by a broad cross section of public health specialists, parasitologists, and invertebrate biologists around the globe,” explained Shedlock.
He adds, “For the average Joe, this snail is a colossally boring animal, but it plays a huge role for more than half a billion people around the world who live at risk of infection. If we can become strategic in our management of this disease by understanding the snail’s biology and how it relates to that of the flatworm, that could lead to a powerful portfolio of potential solutions. It will put us in a predictive role rather than a reactive one regarding disease. That’s the promise of genomic science.”
The work he conducted on the snail is not Shedlock’s first foray into landmark genomic analysis. In fact, he’s become a fixture in this realm. In 2011, Shedlock’s analysis of the lizard genome was published in Nature – the first such work of its kind. And in 2013, he finished the first turtle genome analysis, which was published in Genome Biology.
This latter study led Shedlock to spend the last nine months in Japan and Southeast Asia as a Fulbright scholar working to advance genomics-enabled conservation of sea turtles.
“Genomic science enables us to do a much more accurate job of modeling what to expect regarding how organisms will respond to environmental changes and other pressures,” explained Shedlock. “It’s becoming an enormously important tool for all kinds of basic and applied research in the life sciences. Though my principal work this past year focused on sea turtle conservation, I became involved in applying the same science to a range of other environmental issues. It’s what I refer to as integrative problem solving.”
During Shedlock’s time as a Fulbright Scholar, he was invited by the State Department to join an international team of scientific innovators involved in what’s called the Lower Mekong Initiative – a targeted effort to address the use of natural resources as well as water, agricultural and food security in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
“Those are very real problems in that part of the world and addressing them will require true collaboration across borders,” he says. “I think genomic science offers an important way for us to attack these issues, and that’s what I find very exciting for my students. At the College, they can obtain the skill sets they need to eventually become involved in this kind of work, and soon enough, they’ll be the ones applying genomics as a problem-solving tool for the 21st century.”
Featured image by Reese Moore.