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On a wing and a prayer - Alaska researchers seek clues to bird flu

ram is to assess the diversity and prevalence of avian influenza in Alaska's bird populations," said Jonathan Runstadler, veterinarian, assistant professor of molecular biology at UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology, and a lead scientist on the Avian Influenza Program.

Runstadler along with biologists and technicians from UAF and state, federal and private wildlife agencies are spending part of this summer's bird-banding season collecting cloacal swabs of birds temporarily captured as part of other studies.

"One of the reasons we don't understand the ecology of the virus is that we don't know what happens to the virus in its natural ecosystem," Runstadler said. "We need to understand how the biology of birds impacts disease transmission. For instance, does the time of year when birds nest, fledge, stage, migrate, or interact with young birds affect transmission?"

The cloacal samples will be screened for the avian influenza virus, positive samples will be identified and sent to The Institute of Genomic Research (TIGR) for sequencing of the entire viral RNA genome which will then be published in GenBank, the National Institutes of Health collection of all publicly available RNA and DNA sequences.

With gene sequences, bird species, geographic location and capture information in hand, Tom Marr, UA president's professor of bioinformatics, Jim Long, biotechnology computing technical leader, and Buck Sharpton, UA president's professor of remote sensing plan to create the first Web site of georeferenced avian influenza data.

"We knew about (bird) flu because Kevin Winker has been talking about flu for years," said George Happ, Director of the IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) at UAF, which is funding the UA avian influenza program.

"Before I came nobody was paying attention to the extensive overlap between the Old World and New World migration systems as a disease pathway," said Winker, curator of birds at
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Source:University of Alaska Fairbanks


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