UAlbany professor leads $2.5M anthrax study in Africa

Studies on how the disease is transmitted could provide crucial insight into how to better manage it
University at Albany professor Wendy Turner at work and during free time in Africa.
University at Albany professor Wendy Turner at work and during free time in Africa.

While some professors spent their summer inside preparing for classes and making lesson plans, Wendy Turner spent much of the summer in Africa tracking zebras. 

Not for fun, but as part of a four-year study on anthrax. 

The University at Albany professor was recently granted $2.5 million by the National Science Foundation. She’s studying the pathogen itself, as well as how it’s transmitted in zebras and kudus in two national parks: Etosha in Namibia and Kruger in South Africa.

Growing up on a ranch in Montana, animals have always been of interest to Turner. But when she started college, she knew she wanted to focus on the wildlife a continent away. 

“For unknown reasons, I had an obsession with Africa. I always wanted to go there when I was in college,” Turner said. Finally, in 2000, she had the opportunity to work in Africa as a field assistant.  

“It [was] just kinda like a fish to water,” Turner said. She’s been back almost every year since then. 

Anthrax has been another academic obsession for Turner, who started studying the pathogen in Etosha National Park a decade ago. The deadly disease is caused by a soil bacterium Bacillus anthracis. When it isn’t infecting a host, the pathogen forms spores that can survive for years. After it finds a host it can kill within days. 

Purified anthrax, which is made in a lab, has been used as a bioterrorism agent. But naturally occurring anthrax is more of a concern here and it’s a bigger concern than most people realize, according to Tuner. The more scientists study it, the more questions arise. 

“In some ways, it’s a mysterious disease,” Turner said. 

It behaves differently in different parts of the world. In places like Namibia, there are small outbreaks among animals (usually zebras) every year. But in other areas, there are outbreaks on a decadal cycle, and in some locations, there are sudden outbreaks, which Turner likens to lightning strikes. 

“I’ve been working to understand the system in Namibia: who gets infected, where they’re infected, why some species and not others are being exposed, why we see the seasonal patterns that we see,” Turner said, I feel like at this point we have a pretty good understanding of that system.”

However, that’s only one “system” or part of the world.

The $2.5 million grant – a large sum by any academic researcher’s standards – is the largest Turner has received so far.

“The process of getting that funding took years. It’s not easy to get federal money for your research,” Turner said. It’s allowing Turner and her team to study anthrax in Etosha with that in Kruger National Park in South Africa. 

The two parks are ideal because park managers consider the pathogen a “natural element,” so they don’t control the outbreaks, unlike other areas across the globe. 

There’s also been a noticeable difference in how the pathogen operates in the two parks. 

“People say that anthrax doesn’t change very fast, that it doesn’t change very much, that it’s really similar across the planet. So it’s really surprising to see [when] we look at these two different parks that are roughly in the same part of the world and what we see in the pathogen in the two parks is so different,” Turner said, “So that’s really exciting. I don’t think anyone has data like that to show these patterns over time.”

The study started off on a good note. By the time the grant was officially awarded in early August, Turner and her team were already on the ground setting up their long-term experiments. Turner, along with her graduate students and an undergraduate student from UAlbany, worked for about a month in Etosha National Park. 

They tracked zebras and wildebeests, immobilizing and putting tracking collars on the animals. They also set up a camera trap grid across a habitat where anthrax outbreaks have been known to occur, which will help them monitor the density of animals in the area.  

Beyond tracking the animal activity, they set up experiments to study the diversity of the pathogen. 

“One of the groups of genetic strains found in Kruger National Park is hypothesized to survive poorly in the environment compared to the dominant genetic group that occurs worldwide. We will be investigating that hypothesis and assessing whether spore survival rates can be linked to traits such as dominant or rare strains in both study areas,” Turner said. They’ll be comparing their data with over 50 years of pathogen samples to see how its genome has changed over time. 

Turner’s team was only in the field for about a month, but they were able to get everything set up in Etosha. 

“I’m quite proud of my team. My students are all diligent. We worked really long hours, we worked through weekends. They were troopers,” Turner said. 

Beyond UAlbany, there are several other labs involved in the project, including labs from the University of Maine, the University of Pretoria in South Africa, University of Namibia, University of Oslo in Norway and the University of Hohenheim in Germany. Each lab is concentrating on their own anthrax studies.  

Turner’s studies on how the disease is transmitted could provide crucial insight into how to better manage the disease, especially in third world countries.   

The data is still a long way from being analyzed and will take the next four years or so to collect. 

But so far, Turner said it’s been great to watch her students grow through all the fieldwork they’ve been working on.

“It’s fun to see your grad student[s] become more independent, become more self-sufficient,” Turner said. 

In October, they’ll be heading to track kudus and impala in Kruger National Park in South Africa. They’ll also be setting up the same experiments as they did in Etosha. Then in the summer of 2019, they hope to get all the teams working on the project together. 

“We have collaborators from five countries and seven organizations involved in this project,” Turner said, “so getting everyone together face to face will really help launch this research.”

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