As an animal science major at UNH, there have been multiple remarkable opportunities for me to explore this diverse field. When you think of animal science you may picture farm work, or even clinical practice, but this area of study also has roles in public health and wildlife is a part of that. Upon learning that the state’s diagnostic lab is right here on campus, I knew I had to plunge into this unique opportunity. Thanks to a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) from the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research, I have seen a whole new side of animal science as I survey skunk adenovirus-1 (SkAdV-1) in wildlife from the state of Maine, with Dr. David Needle at the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.
SkAvD-1 is a multi-host emerging infectious respiratory disease affecting wildlife in North America. Previous research has suggested that SkAdV-1, first identified in a skunk from Ontario, Canada in 2015, has a broader vertebrate host range than already identified. The virus has been noted in North American Porcupines, African Pygmy Hedgehogs, and the Gray Fox. It is suspected that the virus is undergoing host adaptation in multiple species. We know that the virus is shed through respiratory secretions, but it is possible that it can be shed in urine and feces as well. With this study, we will be able to provide insight into species distribution, host adaptation, regional prevalence of positive cases throughout Maine, and modes of transmission. To answer these questions, we are screening a broad range of animals, both clinically ill and healthy, including the North American porcupine, raccoon, gray fox, red fox, coyote, gray squirrel, groundhog, opossum, black bear, white-tailed deer, fishers, and bats.
Long before the benchtop lab work began, I spent time connecting with wildlife rehabilitation facilities in Maine to collect carcasses and nasal swabs. Dr. Needle, who is a veterinary pathologist at the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (NHVDL) had been receiving hundreds of samples from across Maine in collaboration with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW). During my project I have organized and stored the samples at -80 ℉ to keep samples fresh and any viral material intact. In addition to physical organization, I have been keeping track of every sample on an Excel database, and communicating with the team in New Hampshire and Maine. This project has brought to life my organization and communication skills, and I am certainly learning something new every day.
When we receive carcasses, we must take tissue samples from the lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, spleen, brain, gastrointestinal tract, and finally a fecal sample. This process, known as a necropsy, has been my favorite part of the experience so far. The necropsy process has enhanced knowledge of anatomy allowing me to visualize real-life examples of normal and diseased anatomy, while also developing skills with surgical tools that I may not otherwise have the chance to use until my time in veterinary school.
Although my research began in the summer, the breadth of the project dictates that the expected completion date is the end of the fall semester, extending into the spring semester. Following our collection and organization of samples, DNA is extracted from lung tissue or nasal swabs in a process wherein cells are lysed and DNA from the sample is separated from the other components of the cell. After the extraction process, PCR will be performed using SkAdV-1 specific primers obtained from a collaborator of Dr. Needle’s. PCR will demonstrate the presence or absence of SkAdV-1 DNA.
Prior studies have identified SkAdV-1 DNA in the respiratory tract and also in the gastrointestinal tract and renal tissue. Therefore, for animals that are PCR positive on the initial respiratory samples, we will test urine and fecal samples via the same PCR to attempt to shed some light on routes of viral shedding. The PCR results will be mapped through Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) mapping at the Dimond Library.
Despite extensive laboratory experience throughout high school and college, there is still so much more for me to learn. I have been fortunate to work with a great laboratory team at the NHVDL and across campus to walk me through unfamiliar techniques and equipment. I gained more experience this summer than I ever expected, and a greater appreciation for pathology, microbiology, and wildlife. I know that I will carry these new skills with me throughout my veterinary journey.