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U of I Scientists Earn Federal Grant to Research Animals' Susceptibility to Coronavirus

Whether coronavirus can use farm animals or North American bats as intermediate hosts to spread SARS-CoV2 is being explored by three University of Idaho researchers.

At his lab on the Moscow campus, Paul Rowley, a virologist and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences is using mammalian cell cultures and a viral agent similar to coronavirus to get to the bottom of the question.

“We already know that humans can infect cats and other animals,” Rowley said. “We’re interested in learning what animals are susceptible and if there’s a risk of SARS-CoV2 jumping into the bat population in North America, or domestic cattle or livestock.”

Aided by a federal grant, Rowley has teamed with U of I Research Assistant Professor Jagdish Patel, a molecular modeling specialist, and James Van Leuven, research assistant professor, to identify animal populations that are likely susceptible to the current pandemic.

“Those populations could potentially act as viral reservoirs and could initiate new disease outbreaks,” Rowley said.

Viruses are submicroscopic bundles of genetic material that cannot replicate without first invading a host cell.

Once inside a cell, viruses such as SARS-CoV2, the coronavirus responsible for the global pandemic, multiply and can make us sick.

Instead of working on treatments to kill SARS-CoV2, Rowley, Patel and U of I Department of Physics Professor Marty Ytreberg, began last spring to locate cell doors - called receptors - that allow viruses to board and invade a cell.

“Viruses evolve extremely rapidly when they are placed under pressure by a drug treatment,” Rowley said. “If you challenge a virus by overusing a treatment regime that is not perfect, you will have the evolution of resistant viruses.”

If the researchers find a way to block receptors that allow SARS-CoV2 to penetrate a cell, they could effectively halt the spread of the virus.

Determining the animal receptors that enable SARS-CoV2 cell entry will benefit both human and animal health, Rowley said.

Ferret farms in Europe this year were shut down and the animals destroyed because of SARS-CoV2 infections, he said. And civet cats - a weasel-like animal related to the mongoose - were partly responsible for the SARS outbreak of almost 20 years ago.

Once scientists know which North American animals - if any - are susceptible, the research will also focus surveillance efforts on specific species or animal populations most likely to be involved in transmission of SARS-CoV2 and other coronaviruses, Rowley said.

In addition, the grant will train undergraduate research students in computational and laboratory skills during the proposed project.

“The literature is moving extremely rapidly,” Rowley said.

So far scientists have learned that livestock is not as susceptible to coronavirus as humans, he said.

This project was funded to University of Idaho by the National Science Foundation under award 2032153.  The total project funding is $199,594.00, of which 100.00% is the federal share.

Ralph Bartholdt, Communication Manager UCM
September 2020

Paul Andrew Rowley

Assistant Professor

Jagdish Patel

Research Assistant Professor

EP 319


Research: Biological Physics
View Marty Ytreberg's profile


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