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WMU researcher looks at cross-specie viral transmission

Aug. 26, 2010

KALAMAZOO--Understanding the path of viruses that originate in animals and spread to humans is key to preventing the transmission of infectious diseases between species, according to a Western Michigan University researcher.

Dr. Maarten Vonhof, WMU associate professor of biological sciences, and a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control studied samples from 23 species of North American bats for a paper published in early August in the journal Science. Their study on the transmission of rabies between similar species of bats can ultimately provide insight into other emerging viral diseases that may affect humans, such as the flu or SARS, and disease migration strategies that may target future viral cross-species transmission--CST.

Their research provides some of the first estimates for any infectious disease of how often CST occurs in complex hosts and the likelihood of disease to become established in a new host species.

"Bats have had the finger pointed at them as many emerging viral diseases in humans appear to have originated from a bat host," Vonhof says. "From a public health perspective, it is vital to understand how often viruses can make the transition to a new host."

The team's research shows that viruses are more likely to jump between closely related host species than more distantly related species. The key is to find out how viruses make the bigger leap between species that are not similar, such as between animals and humans.

"We need to do this for other viral diseases, not just rabies. If general patterns emerge, we can then target intervention and mitigation. We can avoid future veterinary or public health issues," he says.

That research is ongoing. But initially, the research does provide answers about the rate of infection between similar species. The analysis showed that, depending on the species involved, a single infected bat may infect up to 1.9 members of a different species. Also, on average, CST occurs only once for every 72.8 transmissions within the same species.

Rabies was chosen because of the virus's nature to mutate frequently. Yet researchers found that the rapid evolution of the virus wasn't enough to overcome the genetic differences between hosts, and that the virus was more likely to jump between closely related bat species.

Vonhof has studied bats for 17 years, including 6 years at WMU. He earned his doctoral degree from York University in Canada and then obtained post-doctoral experience at the University of Tennessee and Princeton University.

His research interests include the evolutionary biology of bats and their parasites. He applies genetic approaches to the conservation of endangered and migratory bat species, and he is also interested in various aspects of host-disease interactions in bats. He currently has funding to use genetic methods to assess the population-level impact of wind power development on migratory bats, and to develop a comprehensive database of host-parasite records that will be used to predict "hotspots" of viral and parasite diversity in bats.

For more information, contact Dr. Maarten Vonhof at maarten.vonhof@wmich.edu or (269) 387-5626.

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Media contact: Deanne Puca, (269) 387-8400, deanne.puca@wmich.edu

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