Delivering a virus that gets rid of house flies

April 9, 2013 by Sandra Avant, Agricultural Research Service
Common house fly, Musca domestica. Credit: Stephen Ausmus

The house fly is often considered merely a nuisance. But these flies are capable of transmitting animal and human pathogens that can lead to foodborne diseases, including Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Shigella bacteria.

Insecticides are important for control, but house flies are particularly good at developing resistance, and their larvae tend to stay deep enough within their gooey food to avoid exposure to sprays.

Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service's Center for Medical, Agricultural, and Veterinary Entomology (CMAVE) in Gainesville, Florida, are looking at new methods that target adult flies. A promising —salivary gland hypertrophy virus (SGHV)—was recently discovered. Once infected with the virus, female flies do not produce eggs, and male flies do not mate.

Entomologist Chris Geden in the Mosquito and Fly Research Unit at CMAVE partnered with scientists at the University of Florida (UF) and Aarhus University in Denmark to study the distribution and host range of the virus as well as the effectiveness of different application methods.

A virus that works

SGHV is one of three viruses of a newly discovered family called "Hytrosaviridae." The other two viruses are one that infects in Africa and one that infects a pest of flower bulbs in Europe. These viruses are all very host specific, that is, they only occur in the insects they infect, Geden says.

As SGHV replicates in the salivary gland in female flies, something also happens within the reproductive system.

"The salivary glands become huge, ovaries remain small, and the fly can never lay any eggs," Geden says. "The virus hijacks the fly's protein-manufacturing control system. All the protein that would normally go into the ovaries to develop a fly's eggs is diverted to produce virus particles."

The virus may serve as a potential insect-sterilization agent by reducing the fertility of flies, says Drion Boucias, an entomology professor with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"More importantly, studies on this unique virus may provide clues as to how to reduce the yolk protein, providing a template for the development of novel insect birth-control chemistries," Boucias says.

Flies are believed to acquire SGHV when they feed. Infected flies carry disease-causing pathogens on their feet and in their intestines. Each time they feed, infected flies regurgitate massive numbers of virus particles on food. Healthy flies then feed on the contaminated food and pick up .

The team of researchers wanted to find out if they could infect female flies and stop egg development.

"It's a way of managing the fly population at the adult level by limiting its ability to reproduce," Geden says.

Comparison of a healthy fly (A) and a fly infected with SGHV (B). The fly with SGHV shows underdeveloped ovaries (ov) and overdeveloped salivary glands (sg). Credit: Lyle Buss, University of Florida.

The right approach

Generally, the virus's infection rate is very low—around 0.5 to 1 percent of the fly population, Geden says. But sometimes a "hot spot"—an area of significant SGHV activity—can be found. For example, one of the biggest hot spots was found at a large dairy farm in Gilchrist County, Florida, where the virus infection rate was about 37 percent.

"We thought the best approach to increase the infection rate was to develop baits that contain the virus, but we were never able to get high infection levels using baits," Geden says.

The most effective method of infecting flies was direct application of a crude homogenate—a mixture of infected flies and water.

"If we dip the flies in the homogenate or allow them to walk on a surface treated with it, then bingo, we achieve high infection rates; 56 percent of the Danish flies and 50 percent of the Florida flies became infected," Geden says.

Stable fly, Stomoxys calcitrans. Credit: Stephen Ausmus

In laboratory tests, scientists used SGHV-infected house flies collected from livestock farms in Denmark and a strain of Florida house fly—"Orlando normal"—reared at CMAVE. Virus obtained from one of the infected Danish house flies was injected into the Florida flies, which were found to be highly susceptible to it.

None of the other four fly species injected with the virus showed any symptoms.

The study also showed that the Danish and Florida SGHV strains had a similar ability to produce infection. Experiments using Danish and Florida strains of virus as food baits produced infection rates in house flies of 22 percent and 26 percent, respectively. Spraying flies directly with the virus resulted in 18 percent and 22 percent of the flies becoming infected.

Stopping stable flies

Two other species—the black dump fly and the stable fly—were also severely affected by SGHV. Stable flies are an important economic pest that affects cattle, pigs, horses, and other large animals. They can also be a problem in recreational areas.

"When we injected stable flies, not only did they become infected, but they also died very quickly, and of those that didn't die, hardly any had developed ovaries," Geden says.

"We found that infected stable flies produced 50 percent to 75 percent less feces, suggesting that they aren't feeding on blood as often or as well as healthy flies. Flies that had the virus not only didn't lay eggs, but also didn't bite as much."

Researchers also found that the virus was developing and replicating in the , ovaries, body fat, and other tissues in stable flies. Virus-infected flies had a much shorter lifespan than uninfected flies.

Enhancing management techniques

Developing an effective method to infect flies with SGHV in the field could have a significant impact on reducing fly abundance and biting rate, scientists agree.

"I think these novel management strategies of filth fly populations will play an increasingly important role as the human population continues to increase and boundaries between the suburbs and animal-production facilities are reduced," Boucias says.

While SGHV shows great promise in controlling fly populations, it's not a quick fix, Geden says.

"This is not an insecticide. It's not something you would put out when people are complaining about flies at picnics and expect to get a fast reduction," he says. "This would be part of an integrated management program in which you would go out early in the year when natural fly populations are just beginning to increase, hit them with the virus to knock down their reproductive ability, and come back 2 to 3 weeks later and do it again."

"House Fly Stops from Reproducing" was published in the April 2013 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

Explore further: Stopping flies before they mature

More information:

Related Stories

Stopping flies before they mature

November 26, 2012

An insect growth regulator is one of the latest technologies U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists are adding to their arsenal to help fight house flies that spread bacteria to food.

Treating stable flies in pastures

January 2, 2013

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists are developing strategies to help livestock producers control stable flies, the most damaging arthropod pests of cattle in the United States.

Do the world's smallest flies decapitate tiny ants?

July 2, 2012

A new species of phorid fly from Thailand is the smallest fly ever discovered. At just 0.40 millimeters in length, it is 15 times smaller than a house fly and five times smaller than a fruit fly.

Taking the sting out of insect disease

October 31, 2008

( -- University of Queensland researchers have made a discovery that could open up a new front in the fight against insect-transmitted diseases.

Recommended for you

Microbial communities demonstrate high turnover

January 19, 2018

When Mark Twain famously said "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes," he probably didn't anticipate MIT researchers would apply his remark to their microbial research. But a new study does ...

Hot weather is bad news for bird sperm

January 19, 2018

A new study led by Macquarie University and spanning Sydney and Oslo has shown that exposure to extreme temperatures, such as those experienced during heatwave conditions, significantly reduces sperm quality in zebra finches, ...

More genes are active in high-performance maize

January 19, 2018

When two maize inbred lines are crossed with each other, an interesting effect occurs: The hybrid offspring have a significantly higher yield than either of the two parent plants. Scientists at the University of Bonn have ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (4) Apr 10, 2013
Leave them alone. If they weren't important to the environment, they wouldn't be here.
5 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2013
Anyplace you find flies, cockroaches and rats, you'll eventually find humans. Bet on it.
2.3 / 5 (6) Apr 10, 2013
Leave them alone. If they weren't important to the environment, they wouldn't be here.

People like geokstr and lite aren't important to the environment and they are here. All they do is vote people they don't like down regardless of what they say. They would only be useful to the environment as the compost that they are, hear that moderators? Check out their voting habits, they vote certain peoples comments a 1 every time.
1 / 5 (4) Apr 10, 2013
Leave them alone. If they weren't important to the environment, they wouldn't be here.

Anything that cuts down the number of flies is a good thing. I wonder if this would also affect mosquitoes.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2013
Significantly reduce the numbers and something else will step into the ecological niche. Maybe flies with better immunity. Maybe some other noxious critter. Maybe something more benign. But whatever, the niche won't stay empty.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.