While new COVID-19 variants continue to keep researchers around the world busy looking for new ways to cope with current challenges, a group of scientists at New Mexico State University is studying how to use big data to establish an early warning system for emerging viruses.
Katie Young is a biology postdoctoral fellow in NMSU Regents Professor Kathryn Hanley’s lab. Young and student researchers were part of a USDA Grand Challenge project examining the transmission of vesicular stomatitis, a virus which primarily infects horses and cattle and can result in up to 30-day quarantine for livestock, costing ranchers time and money.
Young is the lead author on a paper published in October in the Pathogens Journal of the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI). Researchers believe this is the first time vesicular stomatitis has been detected in the western U.S. from insects not collected in an area with infected domestic animals.
“This project that we're working on is part of a much larger collaborative project,” Young said. “It involves scientists across many broad fields, specifically multiple scientists that are with the USDA. The goal of the USDA Grand Challenge is to tackle tough scientific problems.”
From March to December in 2020, Young, with help from graduate student Lanie Whelpley and recent graduate Bailey Payne, gathered samples and collected data for vesicular stomatitis virus in simulium black flies.
“We don’t see a lot of mortality to the animals, but when you think about it in terms of its biology, vesicular stomatitis virus is incredibly complex so it can infect a lot of hosts,” Young said. “Even though it's been around for over a hundred years and scientists have been researching it, we still have gaps in our knowledge about how it gets transmitted.”
An outbreak of vesicular stomatitis virus occurred in 2020. It typically expands across New Mexico and other states along the Rocky Mountain west and cycles every five to eight ears and lasts one to two years. The researchers wanted to include a broad study across New Mexico but the COVID-19 pandemic changed their plans. They had to stick closer to home to collect samples of black flies along the Rio Grande in Sierra and Dona Ana counties.
“We got super lucky. We were already out on the river sampling vectors and the very first case of a vesicular stomatitis virus in the United States in 2020 happened to be identified in Dona Ana County,” said Young. “We chose to target black flies as a vector because of their shifting dynamics seasonally along the Rio Grande and most previous cases of VSV in NM occur along the river.”
After collecting more than forty thousand black flies, the team discovered the flies appeared soon after the release of the Rio Grande’s water from an upstream dam in March 2020. Young and her team collected data on environmental drivers such as temperature, rainfall in the area and the flow of the river from Caballo all the way down to El Paso.
Ultimately, they found they associations between the number of black flies in an area and seasonal environmental conditions. They also detected the VSV in two new species of black flies.
Whelpley, who plans to become a physician with a focus on virology and epidemiology, will continue this research for her master’s thesis on environmental factors that may predict VSV outbreaks.
“I'm going to be looking at ecological drivers that can influence the spread and transmission of VSV,” Whelpley said. “We also want to look at ecological differences in a year following an outbreak of VSV. Since we had an outbreak last year, we want to see what's going to be different this year. So that's what I’ll be working on for the next couple of years.”
Payne, who graduated in May with her bachelor’s degree from NMSU, worked on specimen collection and molecular identification of black flies for the project. She plans to spend a year working in the Hanley lab before pursuing her master’s degree. “I got this amazing opportunity with Dr. Hanley and I’m taking a year to get all the hands-on experience that I can under my belt. I think that it has really cemented what I want to do with my future and how much I love working with arboviruses and working in a lab. If I hadn't gotten this opportunity with Dr. Hanley and this work I wouldn't be where I am so it's made a pretty big impact.”
The Hanley lab will continue this line of VSV research. Other papers are expected to be published from the data collected in this study, with the next to come out in 2022.