Research in the Fayetteville Disease Ecology Lab is diverse and multidisciplinary. Below are some of our main research themes.
Maintenance and transmission of rodent-borne pathogens
Due to their high abundance in nature, amenability to trapping and sampling, and host role for a range of well-characterized parasites and pathogens, rodents are an important model to investigate fundamental concepts in wildlife disease ecology. At the same time, rodent species are a major source of zoonotic pathogens, such as hantaviruses and arenaviruses, which have direct implications for human health. In order to prevent human exposure to these pathogens, we must understand their dynamics in nature.
Bat-borne viruses and One Health in rural Kenya
A recent spike in the emergence of bat-borne viruses (e.g. SARS, Nipah, Hendra, and possibly Ebola), has seen bat virus research become a global public health focus. These emergences are due to several factors, including human encroachment into bat habitats and increased movement of bats into urban areas following the loss of natural habitats. Despite the recent emphasis on evaluating bat virus diversity, important areas remain unexplored. Furthermore, very little is known about how the identified viruses are maintained and transmitted in bat populations, and the risks they pose for spillover to other species.
This project is focused on the Taita Hills in rural Kenya, which forms part of the Eastern Arc Mountains from south-east Kenya to eastern Tanzania. The area is characterized by incredibly high biodiversity and habitat heterogeneity, ranging from lowland savannah, to small urban villages and agricultural fields, and cloud rainforests. However, the remaining forests, which serve as refuge habitat for many species, are increasingly fragmented by urban encroachment. Due to the high bat diversity and subsequent potential for virus diversity, coupled with the loss of natural habitats and increased contact between bats and people, this region is a high risk setting for bat virus spillover to human populations.
Here we apply a One Health framework to understand bat virus diversity, how the viruses are maintained and transmitted in bat populations, and the effects of human agricultural practices and interactions with the local environment on spillover risk.
We use rodent systems to investigate infection maintenance and transmission in wildlife, and how anthropogenic environmental modifications, such as land use changes and food provisioning, influence these processes. Diverse methods are employed, ranging from molecular studies, to laboratory infection experiments, and longitudinal monitoring and manipulations of wild populations. A prominent model for our research is the bank vole-Puumala hantavirus system in Europe, which is a major zoonotic infection with hundreds to thousands of usually mild annual human cases, in line with vole abundance. This system also provides a way to understand severe and difficult to study hantaviruses in other locations, such as Sin Nombre hantavirus, which is primarily carried by deer mice in the United States.
Thousands of undiscovered viruses and bacteria are believed to be carried by wildlife, some of which are likely to cross the species barrier and pose threats to human health. A critical first step in understanding these pathogens and the risks they pose to human health is their identification and the characterization of wildlife host-pathogen relationships. Our group participates in virus discovery activities by collecting samples from wildlife in diverse locations, including remote settings such as rural Africa and the Caribbean. These are screened for known and novel viruses and bacteria through conventional diagnostic assays and next-generation sequencing.