Skip to main content

Prize Winner Studies Bats to Find Ways to Control Disease Spread

Thumbnail
Daniel Streicker | Courtesy of Nancy Evelyn

For his novel research using viral infections in bats to help answer questions about how infectious diseases jump between species, Daniel G. Streicker has been named the 2013 Grand Prize winner of the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists.

Many of history's most destructive pathogens have gotten their start in one species and then hopped to another. How ecology and evolution interact to allow pathogens to do this has been a longstanding question. Streicker, a Sir Henry Dale Research Fellow at the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, UK, focused on this question in his grand-prize winning essay, "From persistence to cross-species emergence of a viral zoonosis," which appears in the 6 December 2013 issue of Science.

"This is a hugely important topic because we know that cross-species transmission is the most common source of newly emerging diseases, but it is really shocking and surprising how little we actually know about how pathogens do it," said Streicker.

In his interdisciplinary work, integrating ecological and evolutionary analyses of bats, he hopes to uncover patterns in the origins and frequency of cross-species virus transmission. He focuses on bats for several reasons, including their high species diversity and also because they are a major source of highly pathogenic viruses.

Listen to Streicker describe his work in a AAAS Podcast. | AAAS/Natasha Pinol, Carla Schaffer

"My work on bat rabies has shown it to be a surprisingly tractable system for answering some of those fundamental questions about how viruses emerge," Streicker said, "and I think this has led us to some insights that would not have been possible in other systems."

Streicker's work, involving a series of discoveries to date, could help inform policymakers pursuing intervention methods to keep disease spread in wildlife at bay. One such method is culling, which is based on the notion that fewer bats equal less disease. Streicker's field research program in Latin America, where he monitored one thousand bats across a network of colonies for four years, challenged this notion. "Findings from this project question the core assumptions underlying culling bats for disease control," he wrote in his essay. "I showed that rabies exposure in vampire bats was unrelated to colony size."

More recently, using vampire bat tissue samples from public health laboratories, he constructed a dataset of hundreds of sequences of the rabies virus from over 20 bat species, developing a novel population genetic framework to determine virus transmission rates between them. He showed that virus transmission was most likely to occur between bat species that are closely related.

In another study, Streicker demonstrated how host biology can shape the speed of viral evolution. He showed that rabies viruses from tropical and subtropical bats evolve faster than those infecting temperate zone bats.

In all his work, Streicker strives to enable fruitful scientific collaborations and engagements with policymakers seeking to prevent disease. "I am driven to pursue ideas that have potential to transform fundamental understanding of infectious diseases in natural populations, while contributing towards solutions of real-world health problems," he said.

His research project in Latin America reflects this collaborative spirit, he noted. "It has really grown to involve collaborators from many different disciplines, things like public health, ecology, and virology, and now we're spread across four universities and three governmental units both in the United States, Peru and most recently in the United Kingdom."

Thumbnail
Gabriel Victora | Courtesy of Kathleen Dooher
Thumbnail
Weizhe Hong | Courtesy of Ye Emily Wu
Thumbnail
Dominic Schmidt | Courtesy of Schmidt

The new prize awards early-career scientists and includes a grand-prize award of US$25,000, supported by Science for Life Laboratory, a coordinated effort among four universities in Sweden, and the journal Science.

The 2013 award also recognizes a runner-up winner, Gabriel Victora of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research; and two finalists, Weizhe Hong of the California Institute of Technology and Dominic Schmidt of L.E.K. Consulting in London. Their essays are also published in the journal Science. The runner-up to the Grand Prize receives US$5,000 and each of the other two finalists receives US$2,500.

"Recognizing promising doctoral students for their tremendous achievements in science adds important momentum to the career trajectories of very worthy young researchers," said Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science. "We are excited to honor researchers for their novel contributions and concepts while highlighting societally valuable contributions to preventing or treating diseases."

Streicker, meanwhile, is looking ahead, ready to tackle new goals. "In the longer term, for my research, I'm really hoping to push for cross-fertilization between ecology, evolution and public health. That means thinking about disease control efforts almost as a tool to study ecological processes, but then conversely also using ecological modeling and field experiments to try and better inform public health decision-making."

Streicker will receive the award for his research in the field of environmental life science in Stockholm, Sweden, on 9 December, during an award ceremony and dinner at the Grand Hôtel in the Hall of Mirrors, which held the first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901.

"The Science and SciLifeLab Prize is a tremendous honor" said Streicker. "The day-to-day work of scientific research is full of challenges and small victories, so awards like the Science and SciLifeLab Prize that recognize not a single achievement but the synthesis of years of work are quite extraordinary. That the award spans disciplines across the life sciences makes it even more special."

Authors

Natasha D. Pinol

Senior Communications Officer

Meagan Phelan

Science Press Package Executive Director