#KUFieldWorks: Monitoring bat viruses to prevent the next pandemic

"A split image of four photos shows KU researchers conducting fieldwork research in fields, rivers, streams and mountains. The graphic has text in the center that reads, "#KUFieldWorks" "

Editor’s note: Fieldwork provides invaluable insights about real-world environments and processes, expanding and reinforcing what researchers learn in classrooms, labs and collections. KU faculty, staff and students across a spectrum of disciplines are taking their inquiry directly to rivers, prairies, dig sites, glaciers, islands, burial grounds and more this summer. Through the #KUFieldWorks series, we'll join them on their adventures.

Q&A with Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Professor Jocelyn Colella

LAWRENCE — In a remote, mountainous rainforest, University of Kansas researcher Jocelyn Colella and colleagues recently conducted fieldwork monitoring zoonotic diseases in Central America. 

The Robert W. & Geraldine Wilson Assistant Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and assistant curator of mammals at KU’s Biodiversity Institute conducted the research with investigators at the Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas de Estudios de la Salud and the University of New Mexico to study known and novel pathogens in bats. Monitoring changes in these diseases can help us predict and possibly prevent human infections. This is especially important given the migration across this terrain as people flee violence, poverty and political unrest in their home countries. 

What methods, approaches, experiments, etc. are you using?

For this project, our team was holistically sampling wild bats. This type of sampling aims to maximize the amount of information gained from a single sampling event by taking many different types of samples (blood, tissue, fungal swabs, measurements, photos, etc.) to catalyze diverse scientific investigations. For this project specifically, tissue subsamples will be used for genetic sequencing and bioinformatic detection and identification of new and known viruses.

"Jocelyn Colella and colleagues collect tissue samples and prepare them to be sent to repositories and laboratories"

Why does your study matter to your field or for society?

The majority of emerging diseases in humans come from non-human mammals. Because we cannot study that which we do not know, the first step in understanding emerging diseases is to find and identify zoonotic pathogens in the wild — before they find us. Metagenomic (or metatranscriptomic) sequencing allows us to examine the entire viral community of an organism to identify known and novel pathogens. Once identified, we can establish monitoring programs, led by natural history museums, that assess host and pathogen prevalence across space and time. This project specifically aims to better understand the ecology and evolution of hantaviruses by examining the prevalence and genetic diversity of virus strains across different hosts (humans, rodents, bats) over more than 20 years to identify high-risk interfaces between humans and wildlife. 

What do you enjoy most about being in the field?

I most enjoy working with and learning from local students and scientists in the field. The people who live in these exotic places know far more about the distributions, habits and characteristics of local species and how they’re responding to environmental change. Collaborative fieldwork provides an opportunity for cross-disciplinary training and interaction, where people from different countries and institutions can share knowledge and work together toward a common goal. For this project, we are collaborating with the Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas de Estudios de la Salud (Gorgas Memorial Institute for Health Studies), which has a long-term collaboration with the University of New Mexico’s Museum of Southwestern Biology, where I did my Ph.D. Working in Panama has also fueled my latest out-of-the-field hobby: learning Spanish!

"Jocelyn Colella examines a bat in the field"

What are some memorable (funny, scary, surprising, etc.) moments from the field?

For this trip, our team was sampling bats in the Darién Province of Panamá. The Darién, or Darién Gap, is a remote stretch of roadless, mountainous rainforest connecting South and Central America. It’s unique position, as a bridge between two continents, make it a mixing ground for species and a hotspot of biodiversity, but due to its remoteness the region is under-sampled. Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees traverse the Darién Gap every year seeking a better life outside of their home countries. Although I was aware of this humanitarian crisis before traveling to the region, seeing firsthand the sheer volume of people walking north was pretty sobering. Lines of people streaming alongside the highway all night, mostly minding their own business, each carrying only a backpack. It really makes you reflect.

When is fieldwork frustrating, challenging or overwhelming?

When you’re processing samples all day and netting bats all night, when do you sleep?! Bat field crews run especially low on sleep, which can leave team members tired and crabby.

"Researchers across multiple institutions pictured in the rainforest in the Darién Province of Panamá"

How does fieldwork complement the work you do elsewhere?

This fieldwork is part of the NSF-funded PICANTE Project (Pathogen Informatics Center for Analysis Networking Translation and Education) and conducted in collaboration with the Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas de Estudios de la Salud and the University of New Mexico Museum of Southwestern Biology. It also plugs into the Museums and Emerging Pathogens in the Americas group I’ve been helping to lead. That group aims to better unite biorepositories (museums!) with biomedicine and public health through collaborative problem solving, information sharing, and development of international collaborative networks. Through the Biodiversity Institute, the samples and specimens that I collect in the field are used for genetic research in my lab and for extended research in labs across the globe, including morphology, stable isotopes, immunology, and biodiversity modeling, among others.

First photo: University of Kansas researchers conduct fieldwork in prairies, rivers, streams and mountains. The #KUFieldWorks series follows researchers on their fieldwork adventures.

Second photo: Jocelyn Colella and colleagues collect tissue samples and prepare them to be sent to repositories and laboratories. 

Third photo: Jocelyn Colella examines a bat in the field. 

Fourth photo: Researchers across multiple institutions pictured in the rainforest in the Darién Province of Panamá.