Researchers Receive $ 1.75 Million Grant to Study Host Variation | VTx

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Our differences are what make us unique. Different worldviews, different experiences, and even different hair colors can lead to a more diverse and interesting world.

But just as our many differences impact our societies, biological differences in the susceptibility of individuals to a pathogen can also impact a global process: epidemics.

Researchers at Virginia Tech and three other institutions – the University of Memphis, the University of San Diego and the University of Connecticut – are studying this question and how previous exposure to pathogens may affect the level of variation in a population.

The four-year study is part of a $ 1.75 million grant funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences as part of a multi-agency program, The Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID).

The project will involve Virginia Tech researchers Dana Hawley, Kate Langwig and Lauren Childs, all affiliated faculty members of the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic and Arthropod-Transmitted Pathogens housed in the Fralin Institute of Life Sciences. Hawley and Langwig are also affiliate faculty members of the Global Change Center.

“It’s not just about how well protected your population is,” said Hawley, principal investigator of the study and professor of the study. Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences. “It’s also important to know how much variability there is between individuals. You can have two populations that each have the same immunization level, but one population can have a lot more variability than another. We’re not sure how this affects both the degree to which an outbreak might occur and how the pathogen might be pushed to evolve. “

Each individual in a population is different in some way. These differences – age, genetics, acquired immunity, coarseness of nose hairs – make individuals more or less susceptible to pathogenic infection. Prior exposure to a pathogen, the primary focus of the study, may also affect this sensitivity.

Collectively, the differences between individuals can lead to some level of variation within a population as a whole. Individuals in a population will not all have the same protection. This can have a considerable effect on epidemics and on the evolution of pathogens to more virulent strains.

By studying populations of House Finch, Hawley and his team will test and model how different exposures to a common conjunctival pathogen will affect variation in their populations. The research will not only apply to domestic finches, but will also extend to human-pathogen relationships.

“The idea with this particular grant program is that you generate a theory that is broadly relevant,” Hawley said. “Even though we use birds as a model, I think the house finch bacteria system is really a good model for any kind of human pathogen where you get this dynamic of reinfection, which seems to be the case more and more. for COVID. -19.

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