Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

NMSU researchers are helping develop early warning systems for viruses

LAS CRUCES – As new variants of COVID-19 keep researchers around the world looking for new ways to meet current challenges, a group of scientists from New Mexico State University is exploring how to use big data to create a Early warning system for emerging viruses.

Katie Young is a postdoctoral researcher in biology in the laboratory of NMSU Regents Professor Kathryn Hanley. Young and undergraduate researchers were part of a USDA Grand Challenge project that looked at the transmission of vesicular stomatitis, a virus that primarily infects horses and cattle and can result in up to 30 days of livestock quarantine, which ranchers time and costs money.

Pictured is a group of white collection bags filled with samples of black flies.

Young is the lead author of an article published in October in the Pathogens Journal of the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI). Researchers believe this will be the first time in the western United States that vesicular stomatitis has been detected in insects that were not collected in an area where pets were infected.

“This project we’re working on is part of a much larger collaborative venture,” said Young. “It includes scientists from a wide variety of fields, especially several scientists who work at the USDA. The goal of the USDA Grand Challenge is to address difficult scientific problems. “

From March to December 2020, Young, with the help of PhD student Lanie Whelpley and recent graduate Bailey Payne, collected samples and collected data for the vesicular stomatitis virus in simulium mosquitos.

Bailey Payne, a recent biology graduate, sorts flies in the laboratory as part of research into the vesicular stomatitis virus.

“We don’t see much animal mortality, but when you look at it in terms of its biology, the vesicular stomatitis virus is incredibly complex that it can infect many hosts,” said Young. “Even though it has been around for over a hundred years and scientists are researching it, we still have gaps in our knowledge of how it is transmitted.”

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An outbreak of the vesicular stomatitis virus occurred in 2020. It typically spreads across New Mexico and other states along Rocky Mountain to the west, and runs every five to eight years and lasts for one to two years. The researchers wanted to include a large-scale study across New Mexico, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed their plans. They had to stay closer to home to collect black fly samples along the Rio Grande in Sierra and Dona Ana counties.

“We are very lucky. We’ve been on the river sample vectors before and the very first case of vesicular stomatitis virus in the United States in 2020 was accidentally identified in Dona Ana County, “Young said. “We decided to attack black flies as a vector because their dynamics shift seasonally along the Rio Grande and most previous cases of VSV in NM have occurred along the river.”

New Mexico State University Postdoctoral Fellow Katie Young wears a mosquito net over her face as she field gathers samples of black flies for study.

After collecting more than forty thousand black flies, the team discovered that the flies appeared shortly after the Rio Grande water was released from an upstream dam in March 2020. Young and her team collected data on environmental factors such as temperature, rainfall in the region, and the river from Caballo all the way down to El Paso.

Ultimately, they found links between the number of black flies in an area and seasonal environmental conditions. They also discovered the VSV in two new species of black flies.

A fly trap hangs in a tree on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Whelpley, who plans to train as a medical doctor with a focus on virology and epidemiology, will continue this research for her master’s thesis on environmental factors that can predict VSV outbreaks.

“I will be looking for environmental factors that can affect the spread and transmission of VSV,” Whelpley said. “We also want to investigate ecological differences one year after a VSV outbreak. Since we had an outbreak last year, let’s see what this year will be different. I will work on that in the next few years. “

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Payne, who received her bachelor’s degree from NMSU in May, worked on the sample collection and molecular identification of black flies for the project. She plans to work in the Hanley lab for a year before doing her Masters. “I have this great opportunity with Dr. Hanley and I take a year to get all the hands-on experience I can. I think it really solidified what I wanted to do with my future and how much I love working with arboviruses and working in a laboratory. If I take this opportunity with Dr. Hanley and that job if I wasn’t where I am, so it made a pretty big impact. “

The Hanley Laboratory will continue this line of VSV research. Further papers based on the data gathered in this study are expected to be published, with the next one to appear in 2022.

“EYE ON RESEARCH” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Minerva Baumann of NMSU Marketing and Communications. She can be reached at 575-646-7566 or [email protected]

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