Comparative phylogenetic analysis of Trinidad and South American bat populations and their viruses: an investigation into the role of mainland-island bat movement in the dissemination of rabies and other viruses by Janine Seetahal

Bats are recognized as reservoirs for a number of important zoonotic viruses, such as Ebola, Hendra, Marburg and Rabies viruses. Largely due to anthropogenic factors they are increasingly implicated in the transmission of viruses that cross species barriers and the emergence of viruses in human and animal populations. Vampire bats, on account of their hematophagous nature, are efficient vectors for viral transmission, as seen with rabies virus. The Caribbean island of Trinidad, is richly diverse in bat fauna with nearly 70 species and the common presence of many bat genera that exist on the South American mainland including the Desmodus rotundus vampire bat. Our previous work on rabies viruses in Trinidad provided phylogenetic evidence for importation of the virus (Desmodus rotundus variant) into Trinidad from the South American mainland, which is hypothesized to occur via bats flying in from the South American mainland (Seetahal et al, 2013). While studies on aspects of the natural history, behaviour and physiology of Trinidad vampire bats have been conducted since the 1930s, essential baseline information on these species such as population sizes and geographical distribution is lacking. Trinidad is the only Caribbean island with vampire bats and while there are existing protocols in place for the control of vampire bat-transmitted rabies, regular introduction of the virus via bat movement could compromise these efforts.  Population genetic analyses of the vampire vector will allow us to determine the migration patterns of the rabies vector as well as to understand the epidemiology of rabies and other bat-transmitted pathogens.
Therefore, one main objective of our study is to determine the extent of population subdivision and movement between island and mainland populations of the Desmodus bat for Trinidad and the South American mainland. We also aim to determine the viral diversity present in Trinidad bat populations and determine their relationship to viruses on the mainland. Additionally we will determine the sero-prevalence of rabies virus neutralizing antibodies within the bat population of Trinidad to assess exposure of the bat population to the rabies virus.  This will promote a better understanding of bat and viral ecology in Trinidad and determine if there is a relationship between bat movement and the spread of viruses (particularly rabies virus) between Trinidad and South America.

Supervisors

Professor Christine Carrington, BSc Hons Biotechnology (Lond), PhD Molecular Virology (Lond) - Professor of Molecular Genetics and Virology, the University of the West Indies, Trinidad

Professor Christopher Oura, BVetMed, MSc, PhD, MRCVS - Professor of Veterinary Virology, School of Veterinary Medicine, the University of the West Indies, Trinidad

Dr .Daniel Streicker, BSC, PhD Ecology (UGA) - Research fellow, Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, the University of Glasgow, UK

Funding

The PhD was funded by the International Society for Infectious Diseases and European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ISID/ESCMID) Fellowship 2016 and the University of the West Indies Campus Research and Publication Fund CRP.5.MAR.13.15 and CRP.5.MAR.16.52

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