Public Release: 

Field Museum and University of Chicago launch Emerging Pathogens Project

Field Museum

CHICAGO, April 20, 2010 - The Field Museum and the University of Chicago today announced the establishment of the Emerging Pathogens Project, a unique research program to study the evolution of species-switching parasites or pathogens that result in diseases such as bird flu, malaria, and AIDS. Many diseases have a long infection history in animals. The project's goal is to provide in-depth, baseline information on pathogens that appear in animals, eventually leading to important clues for how humans can combat emerging epidemics.

In recent decades, high urban population density, global travel, and the loss of natural areas have provided new ways for diseases infecting animals to come into contact with people. In many cases, these new diseases - such as SARS or Ebola - prove devastating because their rapid, unexpected emergence in humans means medical personnel lack the data to design an appropriate response or predict distribution patterns. Without a previous history of infection patterns or prior knowledge of the pathogen, medical researchers have to scramble to understand how the disease evolved in animals and what enabled it to jump to humans and spread from person to person.

The Field Museum and University of Chicago created the Emerging Pathogens Program (EPP) to address this gap. The EPP melds the Field's extensive research into biodiversity studies and evolution with the University of Chicago's systems biology and genomics programs to create a cross-disciplinary collaboration.

"This is a fascinating initiative combining traditional field collecting with new technologies in the attempt to identify grave disease threats to humans that we may face in coming years and decades," said John McCarter, President of The Field Museum.

The Field Museum planned and conducted its first EPP field expedition last fall in Malawi (southeast Africa), one of the world's least developed and most densely populated countries. The expedition was the most comprehensive field collecting ever done by the museum (and perhaps by any natural history expedition). It yielded 1,100 mammal and bird specimens, including the parasites and pathogens that live in and on them.

The EPP's team of scientists is led by Shannon Hackett, PhD, the Richard and Jill Chaifetz Curator and Head of The Field Museum's Bird Division, and Kevin White, PhD, the James and Karen Frank Family Professor in human genetics and ecology and evolution and Director of the Institute of Genomics and Systems Biology at the University of Chicago. Under their supervision, scientists will extract DNA not only from the animals themselves, but also from viruses, bacteria, parasites and other pathogens affecting the collected animals in order to create an extensive database of emerging animal and pathogen biodiversity. Through these DNA data, the scientists can begin to understand how diseases have evolved and what might happen, genomically, as infectious organisms jump between animal species, as well as monitor any changes in the distribution and virulence of diseases that may threaten humans.

By collecting across ecological gradients, Field Museum scientists can conduct research on how climate change and ecosystem loss is affecting human interaction with wildlife and create models for monitoring and predicting the outbreak of new species-switching diseases.

As part of this work, the University of Chicago's Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology will spearhead efforts in conjunction with the medical community to identify high-risk pathogens for advanced DNA studies. These in-depth studies will provide medical researchers with powerful, new genetic information on the evolutionary history of disease-causing organisms. These data will be invaluable in helping to predict how an organism might spread, what it might do in the environment, what else it might effect, and how we might contain or treat it (for example, whether there are vaccines for related viruses), and how we might monitor such organisms in the future.

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The EPP is at the leading edge of cross-disciplinary biological and medical research. It provides an important new model for understanding the evolution of emerging threats to human and environmental health and bolsters the medical community's ability to curtail or even eliminate new diseases before they become epidemics.

The Emerging Pathogens Project, a collaboration of The Field Museum and University of Chicago, is supported by The Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust and a local Chicago family foundation.

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