Mar 23, 2021
In this episode, we welcome Dr. Stephen Higgs, university distinguished professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University. On this episode, Dr. Higgs discusses interdisciplinary biosecurity research programs, agrosecurity and collaborative research. Higgs, who is director of the Biosecurity Research Institute, or BRI, also highlights the role the BRI will play in transitioning work to the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, adjacent to the K-State campus. Dr. Higgs’ research is focused on mosquito-related viral spread, but through his oversight of the BRI, he has expanded to the areas of food safety and security, plant and animal disease and zoonotic disease.
Yeah, never quite know in this way of research, right? You never quite know what's going to happen. And any day I walk into the BRI maybe a day when one of our researchers makes a discovery that changes the world makes it a better place. I honestly believe that's how I feel every morning.
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.
I'm Scott Tanona. I'm a Philosopher of Science.
I would like to welcome today a guest host, Dr. Jim Stack, Professor of Plant Pathology, and Director of the Great Plains Diagnostic Network. Hello, everyone, and welcome back to the K State Global Food Systems podcast Something to Chew On. In today's podcast, we are joined by Dr. Steven Higgs, director of the biosecurity Research Institute, and a University Distinguished Professor in Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology. His research is focused on mosquito related viral spread. However, through his oversight of the VRI Research Center, Higgs has an expanded association with activities carried out in various sectors of K State to include food safety and security, plant and animal disease and zoonotic disease. In this podcast, Dr. Higgs will discuss interdisciplinary biosecurity research programs, agro security initiatives, and the development of collaborative research. And the BRI's place as a platform for transitioning work that will be conducted at the new national and agro defense facility here in Manhattan, Kansas, and adjacent to K State and the BRI. Welcome Dr. Steve Higgs to the something to chew on podcast with the Kansas State University Global Food Systems Initiative. And we really appreciate your time and your willingness to chat with us today.
It's a pleasure to be here.
That's wonderful. Before we get started, it's part of the discussion I'm sure we'll get into some of the details of your work that you're doing and the facilities that you oversee at K State. But I think before we head down that path, maybe get a bit of a background on you, who you are, what brought you to the type of research that you enjoy doing and maybe what brought you to Kansas State University.
Okay, so, yeah, so I just go by Steve. I've been here at K State since 2011. And my background is from the United Kingdom. I grew up in a very small market town called Wantage and Oxfordshire about 20 miles from Oxford within 60 miles from London. I, it was a small community, it's a country community, which is why I love Manhattan. And I you know, I was a country kid, eventually went to university to study zoology, and then specialized in parasitology. Actually, parasites that could potentially infect livestock. I was studying them in mice, but it was Coccidia that could infect chickens and cattle and so forth. I then went to the London School of Hygiene, I ended up in the environmental microbiology facility in Oxford, and then I was sent to the United States to Colorado State University to learn genetic engineering of mosquitoes. And I'd never been to the States before I came here I stayed a month and then I came back the following year to do a course and was offered a job and so I briefly went back to England came came back came to the United States with the intention of staying no less than a year and some 25 years later, 30 years later. Here I am, I worked at Colorado for 10 years, then University of Texas Medical Branch for 10 and then visited K State to see the Biosecurity Research Institute at a time when I was not really looking for a job and just was one of a better term blown away by the facility and the people here and and what could be done here.
So what was it about the facility that wowed you?
So, you know, my background in terms of research and education and training has been focused on viral diseases of people and virus viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes. And that's obviously very important because hundreds of 1000s of people are infected by these pathogens every year, I came and looked at the BRI and thought, well, this is so much more of a broad scope and broad impact potentially, because unlike any other facility in the world, and I mean that there is no other place like the BRI we can study foodborne pathogens, we can study plant pathogens, as you Barbara Valent, and Jim Stack. And then they studying viruses here, which is what my background is, but not just of people, but also of animals in particular, livestock, the bread was just incredible. As far as I'm concerned, never seen a lab that could do all that because there isn't one. And I thought well, coming here as a matter of this, that it is a truly global impact on and it touches everything. It is a Global Food System in one building, because we work on those pathogens that affect pre harvest, post harvest food, plants, animals, foodborne pathogens, everything. If it was wider than I'd ever sort of, considered before.
Steve, the connection between food security and public health is very tight. And when we look at the goals that collectively the global community has set in terms of enhancing public health, improving food security, and raising standards of living, all of those things really are integrated. And it's hard to tease one out, if you don't address all of these things, we're not going to reach a goal. So the question, looking back, say over the last 20 or 30 years, where do you think we've made a lot of progress on the public health side? For some of these mosquito borne, you know, vectored viruses, where have we made the most progress? And where are we still needing to make progress in order to achieve those kind of global goals?
Like, like you say, Jim, these are very tightly interconnected, that they're inseparable in terms of, human health and well being the pathogens and the effects of food and diet, we know that if you don't have the diet, you don't get the food and your susceptibility, and the consequence of the disease can be very different. In terms of the mosquito borne pathogens, one area where there has been obvious progress has been in mosquito control, there have been some, you know, techniques that have arisen that we're not even thought of, but not not on, on the radar, I talk about things like not genetic control, necessarily, but technique of using, for example, or back here to reduce populations or to drive populations down. And we, you know, you look at 100,000 cases of dengue. And, you know, there's probably been two and a half million people, just in the United States infected with West Nile, each one of those infections essentially starts with the very simple process of one mosquito that happens to be infected biting somebody. And clearly reducing the population as a hazard. Its goal and consequence reduced numbers of infection. And so we have made considerable strides in that particular area. It's remarkable to me, it's remarkable to me sat here still having this career in mosquito borne viruses, just of how much we don't know. You know, we've known about some of these diseases since the late 1800s. You know, so 120 years ago. And, you know, I got into this in about 1985. And thought, well, this is going to be a short career. If we've known about him for 80 or 90 years, there can't be any questions left to answer. And that is so untrue. We don't know some of the most fundamental things about these viruses and how they interact with the mosquitoes, and how they spread, and how they cause some of the diseases. It's sad and it's remarkable. There was hoping in genetics, when we started getting genome of mosquitoes. And this includes anopheles for malaria, it was like a huge hope of, oh, well, if you understand the genetics of the beast, then we will understand the diseases and we can manipulate it and, you know, maybe make mosquitoes, it can't be infected. And really that hasn't transpired. Which is, which is sad. We don't know, something that I'm particularly into, we don't know why some types of mosquito can be infected by some viruses, and some can't, you know, put it the other way why some viruses infect some mosquitoes and others don't, that seems pretty fundamental, because you want to control the species that are responsible for the diseases that you're trying to fight. So basic research has to still be done. One area that I look at my career, and I'm, I suppose my research, my group's research has been more diverse than most other groups. And I'm, I'm very proud of that, because we kind of invented a term a long time ago, you know, virus vector vertebra interactions, I came up with that. And that's what we've been doing. We haven't just looked at the these diseases from the perspective of a virus infecting a mosquito. But we've looked at the interactions between that virus and the mosquito, the interactions between the mosquitoes and vertebrate hosts, sometimes people that they buy, and the relationship that the broad scope of that relationship, but it's very complex, and still lots more to do.
So oftentimes, progress is a function of innovation in technology. And over the last decade or so, we've seen the application of some new technologies, for example, Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes, and more recently, the gene drive technologies. What are your thoughts on the adoption of those the application of those in the real world? What are the pros and cons of that?
Complicated question, Jim, you know, this has been something that has been discussed for many, many years. Like I say, I came to the United States in 1991. Because the there was getting to be technology that could maybe predictably, engineer mosquitoes that has progressed in leaps and bounds as new technologies came in gene drive was being discussed, then, even though you know, just as a concept with no idea that something like CRISPR, Caste Nine would come along and actually provide that capability. So it's been discussed. And the ultimate goal has always been to release those mosquitoes with reduced capacity to, to be infected and transmit the different pathogens, particularly malaria. I mean, that's been a huge focus, especially for the Gates Foundation. And there is still a hard push, I've been involved in some of the CRISPR Caste Nine discussion in the context of malaria and other pathogens. discussions have been supported by the foundation's National Institutes of Health, and then the Gates Foundation and others. It's, it was gene drive on the horizon. I think that's what the book was called. And it's still very much on the horizon, the horizon is getting closer. But we still haven't quite got to the point of having those resistant mosquitoes that could be released unreduced reduce the incidence of infection. We're at a point where genetically engineered must be there's a technique called redl has been widely used, and it's actually been approved for use in the United States now to question but that depends very much on constant release of mosquitoes in absolutely huge numbers to push down the population. The wall back here, technology, which was one of those strange things from you know, Gates funding, that it was kind of a not exactly a back burner, but it wasn't a front runner, and then everything came together, but that it worked. And not only could it suppress populations, but it actually made the mosquitoes less susceptible to infection in some cases. And so, that is certainly something that is has been moving forward to combat for example, the Zika outbreak in Brazil and things like that. So that is actually, you know, happening as we speak. On a regular basis, those types of mosquitoes, you know, I'm always a little frustrated by that term innovation, you see that in, in grant requests a lot, you know, it has to be innovative, but sometimes old and well tried things still still work. But I do understand, you know, that we, we need to look at novel techniques and novel approaches, because, frankly, some of it, some of the old ones are past their time, if you like.
What are your views about the effects or possible unintended consequences of doing things like reducing or maybe drastically reducing mosquito populations? Right, so this is that that is a different way of attacking the problem rather than, you know, preventing bites or infections. Right. And, and are there are things to be thinking about in terms of, you know, ecological consequences, etc. So how does that all factor in?
So, in terms of ecological consequences, Scott, it would seem to be that there are no species of other organism, you know, predators or whatever, that wholly depend on the mosquito, I mean, we are never going to get to the point where there are no mosquitoes out there. If we can alter the species composition of the populations, to, for example, reduce the incidence of disease. So if you were, for example, eliminating the Anopheles Gambi population in Africa, that would reduce malaria incidents, the chances are, there's another mosquito species that might bite, but not might not transmit, that will probably fill the spot of the one that you'd remove. But there really are no even bats if there's no animal that holy depends on mosquitoes that couldn't switch prey, I guess, as far as I can understand, but as much as I've read.
Yeah, so it makes these interventions, a fairly safe and certainly worth on your view, take it whatever those effects might be sort of in terms of the outcome is like very much worth.
I'd like to take the discussion out a little bit further in, in your backyard today is being built the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, the NBAF Center, which I'm sure you've been watching happened over the last several years. Where's the intersection between the VRI and NBAF? And how do those two organizations fit with one another?
So, right, right from the very beginning, at the time, when I was interviewed, I was asked what I thought about NBAF. And, you know, I was very pro NBAF because of the impact it will have in terms of protecting United States providing new knowledge, vaccines and so forth, to secure our food supply, and it will have a global impact on securing global food supplies in many respects. So right from the very beginning, we've had very open productive discussions with the people involved with NBAF, you know, frankly, at all levels, from, you know, senior Homeland Security and USDA. People and we've had lots and lots of visitors from Homeland Security as they were building and an even before they were building it in discussion, design and so forth. And then USDA ever since I got here, because they were USDA people here in Manhattan, the US Department of Agriculture, ARS, arbitrary, Arthropod Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit. When I got here, they helped build the insectary in the BRI. We're doing their research in here. So we all understand that you can be an expert at one thing, but collaboration really gives the power to move research forward, we understand that and we've always had that very open discussion of how we can help him valve as its as it's moving forward. One of the things that happened early on was the state of Kansas, dedicated $35 million to develop research capabilities here at the BRI, in collaboration with the USDA on diseases that were priorities for NBAF. Unwell, we used it in NBAF study to NBAF but which we could all also handle the BRI there was some very significant hurdles in terms of approvals for us to be approved to work with these pathogens, whether I mean, just like Jim Stack wheat grass, we know were the first non federal non government lab that able to work with some of these pathogens, like African and classical swine fever has never been studied a non federal facility. So we'd be breaking new ground. We have a number of USDA people who are here in town and are at Plum Island and who embark including, for example, the director, Alfonso as adjunct faculty, to different departments in K State that gives them the ability to work closely with us to be on committees and so forth and interact closely. BRI is not just research, it's education and training, we do a huge amount of training. On one of the conduits that link, the BRI and NBAF is educational programs or training programs. So early on, we received an award from Homeland Security to train Principal Investigator scientists. You know that NBAF is a modern replacement for Plum Island, Plum Island. I've visited plumb a few times. But the first time I went up there to meet the scientist, it was a very small room. And like seven people showed up, and I'm thinking, wow, where's everybody else? They said, Oh, well, the other, the other person, the other two people can't make it today. So I was amazed that, you know, in that 350 person facility, there were really only about nine principal investigators. Well, NBAF will have certainly double that, maybe more. So it's critical that they have the right expertise. And we've been involved in the training of principal investigators. Like I said, we got the Homeland Security grant, there was then a USDA award that came out. So we've got five more scientists, graduate students being trained at the moment. The wonderful thing about that particular program is that they are guaranteed positions with the government, but for most certainly NBAF after they complete their degrees. So we're still training those people when NBAF opens, ultimately, we're going to have good case data is going in to, to direct some of that research. Obviously, researchers have research teams. And so we also have another award, largely based here at the BRI. That is training laboratories support staff. So that's, you know, that's an incredibly impactful relationship before and bath ever opens its doors and starts research. And we certainly hope and I was, I now have regular meetings with the director of NBAF and with other USDA, people. We certainly all intend that relationship will not end when NBAF opens its doors but will continue long term.
I can certainly see the need and the importance of kind of being connected at the hip between the two facilities.
You can ask them again, because then I don't have to answer them off the cuff as it were. Right.
Well, one of the other things that you mentioned the Arthropod Borne Animal Disease Unit here in Manhattan, there's several other units from the Center of Excellence for Emerging Animal Diseases on the Center of Grain and Animal Health. How do those programs work into what you're doing at BRI? What kind of intersection do you see? Does that overlap with NBAF? Are there any intersections there? We've got obviously a concentration a lot of efforts going into these areas. So just curious how you work together on those?
Those, okay. So, CEZAD and then now CEZID in particular are groups that focus on, on diseases of animals. And that is very relevant obviously to, NBAF Global Food System generally but also inbound, I tell people that the BRI is you can either say the BRI is a smaller and baffle and NBAF is a bigger, bigger BRI, because we have very similar capabilities NBAF has level four. But the reality is that the BRI maybe a smaller version but has a much broader portfolio in terms of research, education and training. Now NBAF will work on a relatively narrow range of of diseases, it won't work on on poultry diseases, it won't work on foodborne pathogens, and it won't work on on plant pathogens, all of which the BRI will continue to work on the this seed is, is new, it's NIH funded, it's 11 and a half million dollars run by Juergen Richt and Phil Hardwidge, it's training people supporting innovative research on some of those projects are here at the PRI, which is which is always good, good for us. And CEZAD was funded last year, so it's got it, you know, almost another five years to go. So some of the research that is supporting is on those and NBAF priority pathogens. So that just consolidates a relationship with NBAF scientists, we know the people involved, they come here like, like I said, you have that average true unit, who staff regularly work at the BRI we are at the BRI their biosafety level three research facility. I've got multiple projects planned this year that are happening at the BRI, and some of those are specifically being conducted by USDA Arbor Drew Research Sciences as principal investigators got one coming up imminently. So it's an all round, productive, collaborative relationship between all of the people that are involved. Does it answer the question?
Yes, it does. Thank you so much. It does. And I have just had the opportunity just recently to start a discussion with Dr. Hardwidge. I was very excited to start understanding what he was doing and where that works fit into the overall picture of safety. And it certainly fits into the food safety area, the more I learn about what's going on in some of these areas, the more excited I am about it.
It is so exciting. You know, I mean, I come to work full of enthusiasm, everyday, sometimes more enthusiasm and less enthusiasm than other days, but always with enthusiasm. Because, you know, as a scientist, you can plan things, you can hope for a particular result. But you're never white, nothing in this way is research, right? You never quite know what's going to happen. And any day I walk into the BRI, maybe a day when one of our researchers makes a discovery that changes the world makes it a better place. I honestly believe that that's what that's how I feel every morning. I go home at night thinking well, it wasn't today sometimes. But I still go home, you know, happy and looking forward to the next day.
That's great. I'm gonna put Dr. Stack on the hot seat here for just a moment. You've had a couple of questions that you had for Steve, what kinds of activities are you involved in there, Jim? And how, what's the relationship between the work you're doing in plant pathology and the BRI?
Yeah, sure. So I, from the plant perspective, I think we've been very fortunate that right from the beginning, the idea at BRI was to be comprehensive with respect to agriculture, public health, looking at that total package and not just isolating, which is very common. In the scientific world, we you create these silos, not necessarily by intent, but bits. As a consequence of the practice the funding streams and all of those things. You tend to get isolated, but the intent right up front with BRI has been to house all of the disciplines that are critical to sustaining our agricultural systems that then support public health. And so I think You know, we've been lucky that we came into the building right as it was going operational. Our first project was in 2009, with the wheat grass project. And, you know, we had, we're lucky to have on staff, a world renowned scientist, Barbara Valent, who has now been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, to lead that project. And her knowledge of that system was critical. She was the first one to look at this emerging population in South America and say, We need to be paying attention to this, this is a critical issue. And it's a good thing she did, because she, through her leadership, we assembled a team that conducted some of the fundamental research that is being applied now, as in fact, as was predicted, this pathogen began to spread around the world. So up until 2016, it was confined to South America, but now it has spread to Southern Asia in 2016, hit Bangladesh 2017, into eastern India, and in 2017 18 timeframe introduced into Zambia in East Africa. And that's a critical issue in East Africa, because that's part of the wheat belt there. So the risk of it spreading into Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia is quite high. And again, this goes to the ability to have a facility like BRI on campus that allowed us to do all this early research. We developed the diagnostic the detection assays that are being used globally. So again, having a facility that puts all that under one roof is quite good, because we share we use the same technologies. I mean, we use the same technologies, we oftentimes use the same approaches to the pathogens, even though the pathogens themselves are fundamentally different. And so they're the discussions we have. We're also fortunate that Marty Vanier and Bob Krause established a program called BRI fellows, and it's the leading researchers at BRI that get together on a regular basis have launched and discuss research. And it's an opportunity to say, wow, I didn't know you were doing that. Tell me more about it, I might over use that in my program. And so things like that happen, where we're able to get more out of it than just a building with individual laboratories. So it's been fundamental to us, it's been a critical asset for the scientists in plant pathology. I hope that answered your question.
It absolutely did. And it's given me a couple of ideas. And I'll probably be reaching out to all of you on a later date. No, it's wonderful. And as you know, Jackie, or I'm sorry, Jim, you and I have had discussions on a few occasions about the importance of interdisciplinary and thinking outside of the box. And I'll take this back to you, Steve, when, clearly you've got a lot of different areas that are feeding into the BRI. And different approaches, different types of research are happening there. Do you ever get outside of the basic sciences with what you're doing? And with that, I'm thinking of Scott here, and I'm thinking of some of the sociological research activities going on campus? Is there ever an interface between some of those types of activities that work at the BRI?
No, we haven't really opened up that collaborative avenue if you're like, I mean, we know that these some of the decisions that we work on are the types of diseases have very significant impact on on communities, obviously, and cluding sociological aspects, but, you know, the facility itself is very much designed to safely contain what we affectionately call high consequence pathogens. So it it does not have that component to it, although, I go to all sorts of enjoy, I used to go to all sorts of meetings and you know, inside K State and and outside and discuss our work I was, you know, I had a Zoom meeting and I did a presentation to the University Distinguished Professors Group on Tuesday. And we're always looking for new ideas, new partners, new ideas, new things to write grants and get money on. And we would certainly welcome that we've got a group in the National Cultural Biosecurity Center led by Dr. Venier, that very much interact with communities in Kansas with, you know, for the purpose of emergency preparedness. And that takes in, you know, the aspects of those small rural communities up to big cities. And then they've worked with people who run feedlots and processing plants, all that sort of thing to to develop that preparedness, you know, they've got, you know, considerable money over the especially Homeland Security, to prepare us as a nation against in, in currencies of potentially devastating pathogens. I was going to just build on, I was delighted when Jim mentioned the Marty Vanier and Bob Krause Fellows Program, because how fields move forward is quite often that diversity of ideas where you know, somebody who's never worked with mosquito borne diseases, viruses before, suddenly says, oh, have you ever thought of this? And, you know, you're so wrapped up in your own field that you sometimes have almost blinkered vision. And that sort of that's the innovation and the creativity that we need. And I say this, in all honesty, but what we do here, and this is my work Jim's work on yourselves on Global Food Systems. This is something that is too important for politics, and it's too important for egos. It's something that affects us all. And one of the significant joys for me here at K State is that we have a nominal expertise, we have great personalities, but they pulling in the same direction. I haven't seen the personal agendas, the personal politics, I mean, everybody wants to make a contribution and perhaps be known for it like our recent work SARS, Covid too, and mosquitoes. But it doesn't get in the way of collaboration. And that's it's something we take for granted, I think, here at K State. But it isn't something that happens everywhere.
I wanted to make me want to back up just a little bit and ask why. Why BRI is so unique in this comprehensiveness. Right, so you said you and Jim both talked about the benefits of these interactions, and the benefit of there being the possibility of jumping in right in an area and you know, plant pathology, and then next to people studying mosquitoes. But but it's not typical, right? Or it's maybe, you know, particularly unique, so why is that? And what could you say a little bit more about, like, how it happened to come this way, and maybe what the challenges were, because we've talked about the benefits here. But so what happened?
So, um, I guess simply put, it's visionary leadership, you know, I can't take credit for any of this. I arrived at a going concern, you know, maybe at its infancy and it's certainly grown tremendously since I've been here. But in the early days of developing the BRI, Jim GEICO was involved. President refold was involved on trim which evolved. And, and subsequently, thank goodness, all of our our senior administrators and leaders. There is a sketch, I think, on a napkin of us facility like this. That was Jim, he probably knows more about this than I do. Because he Jim was actually a previous director of the BRI. So he knows more about how it came to pass in me. But there was that vision that these things are compatible. I mean, you know, inseparable in many ways from a Global Food System, perspective. Plants, animals, foodborne pathogens, they all affect us, they're all interconnected. And somebody said, you know, it should be under one roof, and that I hate using the word unique because the minute you say, Oh, it's a one of a kind, you know, oh, it's unique, then somebody hit lashing, you know, there's this place elsewhere that also has this, but in my experience, I can use the word unique with some conviction because I really do not know of any other facility that under one roof has the ability and the expertise to safely and securely work with foodborne pathogens, plant pathogens, and those animal diseases including zoonotic pathogens, that affect people. There are other facilities that you know, have a narrower portfolio and a much bigger footprint but There's nothing like the BRI. Jim, any comments?
You covered it fairly well. I would say why? Why that was the strategy here. I think it does go to what Steve said the, the leadership, at the time recruited a number of faculty to tackle this idea. And in the idea, the stimulus came from Senator Roberts, who came to K State and said something to you know, don't quote me here, but it something to the equivalent look, every year, you asked for this basket full of things, why don't you give me something big that that we can really sink our teeth into. And so the leadership basically looked at what we were doing at the time, and they pulled together people like Curtis Kastner, who's director of the Foods Science Institute. And, you know, I think, you know, other faculty were involved in it got together and said, what we really need to be, you know, the one thing we can't do yet, is work with some of these very high consequence pathogens that are either emerging or on the horizon that we should be paying attention to. And that's where that sketch on a napkin came from. So what that looked like, and literally, you know, sketches started to appear, well, it would look something like this. Well, of course, that went through many evolutionary steps. Before it got to a blueprint of what we see now is the BRI. I will re-emphasize, I think the point I made that is, I think the silo effect that you see in academic institutions, is not really this intentional, designed to keep people apart, it goes to some very basic things like our funding streams, and we don't apply to the same grants. We don't publish in the same journals. We're not oftentimes evaluated by the same sets of criteria. I mean, overall, yes, but there's a lot of variation in there. I think it's a you know, it's the island effect in ecology, where things diverge, to kind of evolve in their own tracks based on the selection pressures that exist inside, I think some of it is just the way we do our work. We don't have as many platforms for interaction. And fortunately, for the types of things I do, we now have to be BRI, that is that platform, it's the incubator building for thinking where we can sit together and think out loud and say, well, that's not gonna work. To come up with that one Stack, you know, but it's a good opportunity to, to learn what other how other people look at similar problems. So I think I don't think it's by design, I don't think people want to be siloed I just think it there are fundamental aspects of the academic institution that lead to that.
On a course in recognition of, of Senator Roberts contributions, and being a catalyst for these discussions and the creation of the VRI, we are based in Pat Roberts in hall
I was wondering how much that interaction benefits, if we talk a little bit more about how those benefits accrue. So some of its just from ideas, right from other people that maybe have not been working in the same area, but Steve you also talked about the complexity of the problems. And so for example, like a mosquito borne disease, it's not just the genetics of the virus that matters, or this or the genetics of the mosquito that matters, but interactions. And I know, you've done work on like, the interactions between the host and the mosquito in terms of right sort of that really affect the, you know, have an impact on the infectiousness of the virus, right. So I'm wondering how much having a bunch of different kind of work happening at the BRI might potentially help when you turn to look at these complex systems and looking at multiple parts of the systems, right.
Yeah. It's like, it's like Jim said, we do meet through our work and sometimes socially, and, you know, it's sad, but true that we were never far from our work, are we, as scientists, you know, you go out socially and most of the time all you talk about is work and, and that's what happens. I was involved in a conversation yesterday about, you know, a well put, could these pathogens of plants influence pathogens of animals and pathogenicity. When I did that UDP meeting the other night, I was specifically asked, Well, are there plant pathogens out there that can affect humans or, or animals and Dr. Stack immediately came to mind because he'll tell you he's working on this most bizarre pathogen radiobacter tops occurs, which bridges that that relationship between plants and animals in seems to have its foot in all kingdoms if you like. But Scott, to answer your question, just those casual conversations, being able to express, you know, frustrations of something that didn't work, and then having a different point of view with without the the dogma of, you know, people saying, Oh, well, that doesn't work because it never has, you know, for the mosquito side of things. When I first came to the States, it was a group funded by the John D And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It was a parasite group. And then there was an arthropod borne diseases group. And the innovation there was it brought in people who knew a lot about insects in particular to software, but nothing about mosquitoes. Nothing about the diseases that they spread, but had a tremendous capacity to work with an organism that was relatively easy to genetically engineer. And that was where the breakthroughs come. It was, you know, you grow up in the sciences. And you know, you get convinced, oh, well, this has never been done before. And everything has been tried. And it just doesn't work. And I won't give up but it isn't where you focus your efforts, because often isn't where the funding is. But then you get to talk to a plant pathologist, or, you know, a food microbiologist. And you have to sort of press that reset, because they can throw out something at any time that you go home at night and you wake up Saturday, wake up at two o'clock and monitoring dial, I wonder if that would work and if that would apply. And that's what happens. And you agree, Jim?
Yeah, absolutely. And more recently, for me, the bacterium that Steve just mentioned Rathi Pachter hypothesis I'm kind of working on for how we describe the new genetic population of this bacterium. And the hypothesis I have is that it most likely occurred within an animal. And so that's outside my area of expertise. And so I've been talking to the scientists that VRI on how we could explore that how we might figure out if that's where this rather substantial genetic change occurred in this bacterium? So I think, again, it's an opportunity to learn from other people.
Well, I guess that's kind of what it's all about, isn't it? Is getting groups in the room talking to one another, and learning from other people, understanding the diversity of where research can take us.
I have one more question for Steve. So certainly, within in the plant world, there is accumulating data on the ability of viruses to actually alter the behavior of their vector of their arthropod host. And I'm wondering if you see the same thing with some of the viruses and the mosquitoes, does the infection of the mosquito by the virus actually change its behavior? Say it's feeding behavior for conduct D something like that?
Good question. Yeah, I mean, so when I was a parasitologist, a long time ago, you know, there were some fascinating parasites, I launched it for infected and made them run up glass grass stems, late at night so that they could eat be eaten by sheep. So there's been discussion on how viruses might manipulate mosquito behavior in such a way that it would favor transmission. The, you know, these so the interest in these viruses can infect an animal at a very low dose, you might get one West Nile virus particle, and three days later, the animal is dead. And yet in a mosquito, you might get, I mean, serious, you might get 100 million or 1000 million virus particles in that mosquito. And it infects it for life, the whole life of the mosquito and some of these mosquitoes can live months and does not seem to have any of the pathological consequences to the vector. We have noo, we have no idea how these mosquitoes couldn't be infected and churning out. That's a technical term right? You know, having virus replicating enormous titers, and yet really just play about as normal. It's been suggested that maybe the viruses could disrupt feeding patterns in such a way that a virus would a virally infected mosquito would feed more frequently than a non infected mosquito. And the advantage to the virus, there would be that it would be transmitted more frequently and more efficiently. Is it possible that viruses could influence longevity, that wouldn't be obviously to the virus's advantage? Because the longer that mosquito lives, as long as it's infected for life, the longer it can be transmitted. So that would be not a good thing. It's been suggested there have been a few publications that say, Yeah, infected mosquitoes breed more often. And then there have been equally reputable publications. So well, no, they don't. We looked at mosquitoes over a long period of time with West Nile to see if there was pathology. And we had to take those mosquitoes out to become geriatric mosquitoes before we saw maybe a little bit effect, but it was inconsistent. We discussed at one point looking at mosquito behavior in infected mosquitoes. Technically, we never quite figured out how to do that to be honest, because the one thing you want in an infected mosquito is for it to be closely contained. I tell people, you know, one time mosquitoes are infected every week, we count those mosquitoes frequently, maybe every day, as we take samples, because we always have to, we take that safety and security very seriously, you have to know where your organism is, at all times. And so most of our studies are done in relatively small containers. To study the true behavior, a mosquito would need large cages. And maybe remote observation we talked about cameras to track must be no Flight Behavior and so forth. And, and we never really were able to figure it out. Because if you've got a very large cage with 100 mosquitoes in that it's difficult to keep counting them, you know, occasionally they die, they're on the floor, it's easy to do in a small carton, but not in a big container. And all of this is done in a laboratory setting, I had a very nice friend who said, you know, you can say that this happens in a lab with this species of mosquito, this type of virus, this period of time, but you cannot extrapolate beyond that. And the truth is, we don't know what mosquitoes really doing in the wild very, very thoroughly, you know, just to study them in the wild, you have to be in that environment with them, you know, some of the the Para domestic mosquito patterns that are indoors, but some of the mosquitoes are in you know, jungle environments, for example, or in in grasslands, where are they? How often are they flying? You can take snapshots, but not really know what the true behavior is. The bottom line at the moment is there is no consistent there are no consistent data that suggests that the behavior old or the feeding patterns, black pants or anything are consistently changed by viral infection.
So I am not asking you to comment here. But I mean, just as a as a working hypothesis, you might predict that though, since the virus is dependent upon the vector to deliver it to a toast for replicate, unless evolutionarily, the the virus in say, the human host, or the animal host is incidental, and it's its main focus is the vector itself. And so those are some of the hypotheses that are being kind of tossed about in the plant. So well. Thank you, Steve. Yeah, appreciate that.
Lots to talk about Jim.
There’s lots to talk about.
The only thing that I that I wanted to get an opportunity to ask you about was no, there's some work on SARS, Covid to BRI, and sort of in the current world that we're in sort of any, any thoughts you have about about some of the complexities that we've talked about about you know, host virus vector. I mean, there's not a vector here that we're worried about, but complex interactions, that there are lessons that We might have for SARS Covid. Two and COVID. Going forward.
Yeah. Oh, Scott, I could have paid you for that question. So, you know, so last year, as the university was, was closing down, you know, personal interactions very much, and many other facilities and buildings were being closed down. It was early. I mean, we knew we knew this was the case, but it was quickly realized by the bar leadership that the PRI isn't the sort of facility that you can just close down and open up again, it's not like, you know, you flip the switch is such a sophisticated facility in terms of air handling and safety, security, everything and keeping our pathogens secure, that we really just couldn't close it, and then turn the turn the lights back on and parently generate generators and or the HVAC system. And I'm be back to normal. So, you know, thank goodness, we were able to rearrange our stopping slightly with a reduced stuff. But we've never closed we've always had people on site. An Luckily. Again, the administration said, well, this research that you do, on the expertise that you have can, could be turned towards COVID, we already had investigators sort of knocking at the door saying I can work we need the answers. For COVID. It's a new pathogen in a new environment, and there's so much that we don't know. So one of the beauties of being a University is that we can be nimble. Government labs probably don't have that luxury. But we were very quickly able as an institute, and I mean, as a university, the K State Institute, not just the BRI, to enable research to be done on SARS, Covid too, you know, the IBCs, the IR cooks met, especially to review proposals and protocols for us. And we were very quickly able to wind down and complete a couple of research projects, but start projects on SARS, Covid two. And my theme, obviously, was mosquitoes. And I posed a very simple question, can this virus can infect mosquitoes and could it be transmitted, because if it could be transmitted, then that would potentially have a huge impact on transmission dynamic, you know, mosquitoes bite, feed on almost anybody indiscriminately, if they can find them. And it's the right mosquito, they will feed on people. So that means that children and you know, different age groups, you might not be susceptible to being exposed to the virus would all be exposed. So we did? Well, we say it's relatively simple. So we actually inoculated the virus into three species of mosquito, which is the most rigorous test of a virus capacity to infect a mosquito, we get three different species. And whereas as a researcher, as a scientist, you, you hope for positive results. There was a, there was a big part of us, basically saying, Well, I hope the experiments work because we know what we're doing, and we're gonna do them properly, but please, please, that this virus does not infect mosquitoes. And that, that is, that is what happened. And we were the first researchers to do these experiments and publish it in a peer review. Journal. I got the data on this with a UDP meeting the other day. So we, we published the work, the university very quickly wrote a journalistic piece to highlight it. And today, that work has been reported in 618 news outlets in 42 countries and been translated to 18 different languages. You know, that's, I mean, it gives me personal pleasure. But in terms of highlighting the capabilities of what we can do at the BRI, in a relatively short space of time, that really puts us on the map. I mean, that puts a university on the map, which is, which is good for all of us to get that sort of attention and recognition. And then we had other researchers, notably Juergen Richt team, you know, doing studies on pigs on in cats. Early on, there were a few cases reported that companion animals could be infected. And so it was important to do that research to just, you know, get the data so that decisions could be made based on data and not just on assumptions.
I suppose just a comment that, as you said right at the beginning, the Global Food System Initiative is something that I think more broadly touches all of us at the university than maybe any other initiative. Jim does brilliant presentations on the impact of food insecurity, local and global scales, politics and everything. I mean, it's so impressive. And for you to for us to have this program here and for you to have the leadership roles in this is so important at all scales for K State and for and for the world. Really.
I want to thank all of you. This
has been really interesting discussion. And thanks so much for
coming on for giving me your time.
Thanks a lot for your time today. Appreciate it. Thank you. Thanks very much.
Take care. Yeah, bye bye. Bye.
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Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.