Suggest to Michelle Harvey that over the years Louie the Fly has probably got a bad rap and she smiles back over the top of her coffee and says: “Yeah, he probably has.”
Michelle, or Dr Harvey to give her her proper academic title, is well placed to forensically examine Louie’s alleged “straight from garbage tip to you” crimes – and also his potential to do good things, like killing super bugs.
She’s just won a Churchill Fellowship that allows her “to describe the bacterial fauna associated with the blowfly Lucilia sericata in flystrike, carrion breeding and natural situations”.
“I can put it more simply then that,” she laughs.
“No one in the world has looked at how flies and maggots deal with microbes.
“These are same flies found on dead bodies that are also found when they are cleaning up wounds for maggot therapy and also in sheep in flystrike.
“I am interested in what the flies are actually bringing in when they are laying their eggs which hatch to form the maggots because they are obviously bringing in some bacteria.
“They can kill off other bacteria and we know that they naturally have these bacteria in their stomachs that produce these anti-bacterial substances.
“Why we really need to know more is because these anti-bacterial substances have the potential to kill off super bugs.”
With her Deakin colleague Dr Melanie Thomson, Dr Harvey is working on the Geelong-based Mighty Maggot project.
This study involves using maggots to cure the Bairnsdale Ulcer, instead of plastic surgery.
The project recently received funding from the Geelong Community Foundation, and through the Pozible crowd funding projects and even made it into Hansard in the Federal Parliament, courtesy of the local member for Corio, Richard Marles.
“The work with my Churchill Fellows flows on from the project with Mel,” Dr Harvey said.
“I want to actually profile what’s going in the stomach of a maggot when it’s feeding on dead tissue, using DNA techniques and doing that at two different body farms in America.
“I will spend two weeks at each of those.”
A body farm is a place to which people donate their remains so that researchers can monitor how they decompose under different conditions.
Dr Harvey has already spent 12 months at a body farm in Tennessee. There, on a daily basis, she sat and watched seven bodies decompose to see what the insects do to the body in different circumstances like sun and shade, or when a body is clothed or buried.
This research is a great help for forensic scientists trying to determine the time of death.
“I am trying to be the first to take a holistic view of the flies and say they’re doing all these things that are very important economically and socially
“Up until now everyone has been doing their research in isolated pockets and I want to bring it all together.”
Dr Harvey thanked Deakin University for the opportunities she has received since her arrival last year.
“Without the facilities they have given me here at Deakin, and the support I have received, I wouldn’t be applying for awards like the Churchill Fellowship,” she said.
Dr Harvey said she hopes that winning the Churchill Fellowship will be career defining.
“It is a real honour to receive this,” she said.
“It is incredibly prestigious. I have had a few other big fellowships and the last big one was the one that took me to the body farm in Tennessee.
“So it is really great to be going back and with a different spin on things because it is still working with the flies but I think I will have a bigger perspective on what can be done with them.
“It is not just the forensics. I am trying to recognise their true potential.”
Louie the Fly will be thrilled.