Biohunters: How genomic analysis is aiding the fight against bioweapons, global epidemics and deadly food contaminants
When a cholera epidemic broke out in Haiti late in 2010, news reports quickly blamed the outbreak on UN peacekeepers from Nepal, touching off a cataclysmic international blame game that deeply offended Nepal, damaged the UN and sparked outrage in Haiti. Determining whether such accusations are true is not easy, but it’s the kind of thing that Paul Keim and his colleagues thrive on. Keim will review this case and others (including an anthrax outbreak in Scotland and some of the things we still don’t know about the anthrax letters 10 years later), and talk about tracing bioweapons and defending against them.
Jeffrey Foster will talk about a lethal epidemic in bats that could vastly alter the North American bat population. White-nose syndrome has killed 1-2 million bats in the Eastern U.S., and it is rapidly spreading westward, where it could wipe out entire species of bats, says Foster. He investigated a European form of the pathogen, in which bats get the same white fungus on their noses, but do not die. Could this variant help researchers understand how to combat the epidemic? Not immediately: Foster’s analysis showed it was identical to its lethal American counterpart.
Lance Price is using new genomics techniques to address the problem of antibiotic resistance—which he calls one of the greatest threats to public health. Antibiotic use in the production of food animals is a “major driving force” for the development of resistance to antibiotics, but one that he says has been largely ignored in the United States. Estimates put the annual cost of fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria at $4-5 billion, and infections with these bacteria lead to some 90,000 deaths annually. The molecular techniques that Price uses, when combined with traditional epidemiology, allow him to quantify the relative impact of food antibiotic use on human health. He’ll discuss those findings.