As the threat of African horse sickness (AHS) in parts of Europe grows, scientists are turning to a genetic level of understanding and fighting the disease.

African horse sickness is a fatal viral disease spread by Culicoides–tiny, blood-sucking insects–that can affect horses, mules, and donkeys, as well as dogs and camels. Horses are most susceptible to AHS, with a 75-90% mortality rate. A vaccine is available, but no effective treatment methods exist for infected horses. For survivors, recovery is slow.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in England, have recovered the AHS-causing virus from RNA (a special kind of genetic material involved in gene expression) they developed in their own laboratory. With that synthetic material, the researchers hope to use what they call “reverse genetics” to comprehend the virus at the molecular level—how it reproduces and spreads, how it interacts with the infected animal’s cells, and how it causes disease. But perhaps more importantly, their work can contribute to vaccine development, said Polly Roy, MSc, PhD, FMedSci, professor of virology and supervising researcher on the project.

“This kind of vaccine is very different in its mechanism of action compared to a traditional rabies or flu vaccine, because those are based on recombinant (or those developed in a laboratory) proteins, not on the actual virus,” Roy said.

In reverse genetics, researchers study what happens when they modify certain genes or parts of genes. Conversely, in “regular” genetic studies, scientists investigate the opposite: They usually try