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Bats illuminate ways to control and prevent disease research earns top prize for young scientists

Supported by SciLifeLab and Science

American Association for the Advancement of Science


IMAGE: This image shows bats roosting and flying in a cave in Peru. This image relates to the work of Dr. Daniel Streicker, the 2013 Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists... view more

Credit: [Image courtesy of Daniel Streicker]

WASHINGTON, DC -- For his novel research using viral infections in bats to help answer questions about how infectious diseases jump between species, Daniel G. Streicker has been named the 2013 Grand Prize winner of the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists. The new prize awards early-career scientists and includes a grand-prize award of US$25,000, supported by Science for Life Laboratory, a coordinated effort among four universities in Sweden, and the journal Science, which is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

How do ecology and evolution interact to allow viruses to spill into to new host species? Daniel Streicker, a Sir Henry Dale Research Fellow at the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, UK, focused on this question in the research discussed in his grand-prize winning essay, "From persistence to cross-species emergence of a viral zoonosis," which will appear in the 6 December 2013 issue of Science.

"This is a hugely important topic because we know that cross-species transmission is the most common source of newly emerging diseases, but it is really shocking and surprising how little we actually know about how pathogens do it," said Streicker in a podcast interview. "My work on bat rabies has shown it to be a surprisingly tractable system for answering some of those fundamental questions about how viruses emerge, and I think this has led us to some insights that would not have been possible in other systems."

In his interdisciplinary work, integrating ecological and evolutionary analyses of bats, he hopes to uncover patterns in the origins of cross-species virus transmission and the frequency of pathogen emergence.

Streicker strives to enable fruitful scientific collaborations and engagements with policymakers seeking to prevent disease. "I am driven to pursue ideas that have potential to transform fundamental understanding of infectious diseases in natural populations, while contributing towards solutions of real-world health problems."

His ultimate goal is to be able to predict which host shifts are most likely to occur and what measures can be taken to prevent them. Today, such measures include culling, which is based on the notion that fewer bats equals less disease. Streicker's graduate work in Peru, where he monitored one thousand bats across a network of colonies for four years, actually showed the opposite--that rabies exposure in vampire bats (the only bat culled to manage zoonotic disease) is not related to colony size.

"Findings from this project question the core assumptions underlying culling bats for disease control," he wrote in his essay. "I showed that rabies exposure in vampire bats was unrelated to colony size," he added. "Since then, that project has really grown to involve collaborators from many different disciplines, things like public health, ecology, and virology, and now we're spread across four universities and three governmental units both in the United States, Peru and most recently in the United Kingdom."

He hopes to inspire other young scientists to think about ways to tackle problems in the area of emerging infectious diseases, which threaten all life. "Solutions will require scientists with broad training who are excited to collaborate across scientific disciplinary boundaries."

"Recognizing promising doctoral students for their tremendous achievements in science adds important momentum to the career trajectories of very worthy young researchers," said Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science. "We are excited to honor researchers for their novel contributions and concepts while highlighting societally valuable contributions to preventing or treating diseases."

While working on his research at the University of Georgia's Odum School of Ecology, Streicker used bat rabies as a model system--in part, due to the high species diversity of bats and also because they are a major source of highly pathogenic viruses-- "to answer fundamental questions about pathogen emergence and to help guide control of a major zoonosis in the developing world," he wrote in his prize-winning essay. By studying bat tissue samples from public health laboratories, he constructed a dataset of hundreds of sequences from the rabies virus from over 20 bat species and developed a novel population genetic framework to determine transmission rates between these species. He showed that virus transmission was most likely to occur between closely related bat species.

In another study, Streicker demonstrated "how host biology can shape the speed of viral evolution." He showed that rabies viruses from tropical and subtropical bats evolve faster than those infecting temperate zone bats.

"Science has never been more exciting and we need to support and encourage young researchers today and in the future," said Mathias Uhlén, the director for SciLifeLab and a key founder of the prize. "We are therefore excited for the truly tremendous response for the announcement of this new award for outstanding achievements by young scientists."

Streicker, meanwhile, is looking ahead, ready to tackle new goals. "In the longer term, for my research, I'm really hoping to push for cross-fertilization between ecology, evolution and public health. That means thinking about disease control efforts almost as a tool to study ecological processes, but then conversely also using ecological modeling and field experiments to try and better inform public health decision-making."

He also has plans for his project in Peru. "In the next phase of my research career I aim to grow my research program [there]," explained Streicker. "I will explore how improved fundamental understanding of transmission dynamics in heterogeneous wildlife populations may empower science-guided disease control policies."

"Another exciting new area will be transferring the concepts from my laboratory studies on cross-species transmission to the field in order to test hypotheses on which pathogens are shared between which species, how often these transmission events happen and how evolutionary dynamics at early stages of emergence determine the long-term fate of pathogens in newly infected host species," he said.

"Our society needs a vibrant science community, and this prize recognizes the brightest young researchers and the best new ideas in science today," said Barbara Jasny, deputy editor of Science.

Streicker will receive the award for his research in the field of environmental life science in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday, 9 December, during an award ceremony and dinner at the Grand Hôtel in the Hall of Mirrors, which held the first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901.

"The Science and SciLifeLab Prize is a tremendous honor" said Streicker. "The day-to-day work of scientific research is full of challenges and small victories, so awards like the Science and SciLifeLab Prize that recognize not a single achievement but the synthesis of years of work are quite extraordinary. That the award spans disciplines across the life sciences makes it even more special."

Streicker received his Ph.D. from the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia in 2011. Previously, he worked as an Emerging Infectious Diseases Fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He received the 2013 Robert C. Anderson Award for Best Dissertation in Life Science from the University of Georgia and has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society, the American Philosophical Society and National Geographic.

The Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists is a new prize aimed at rewarding young scientists at an early stage of their careers. The categories for this annual award are genomics/proteomics/systems biology, developmental biology, molecular and cell biology as well as environmental life science.

Applicants for the 2013 Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists submitted a 1000-word essay that was judged by an independent editorial team organized by the journal Science. Their essays were judged on the quality of research and the applicants' ability to articulate how their work would contribute to the scientific field.

The 2013 award also recognizes the following runners-up winners, whose essays will be published in the journal Science online in early December. The runner-up to the Grand Prize receives US$5,000 and each of the other two finalists receives US$2,500.

2013 First Runner-up

Gabriel Victora: For his essay on the topic of molecular and cellular biology, "Stop, go, and evolve." Dr. Victora is a Whitehead Fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, where he heads the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Dynamics. He received his Ph.D. from the New York University School of Medicine for work done jointly at that institution and at the Rockefeller University. He is a recipient of the 2011 Weintraub Award for Graduate Research, the 2012 March of Dimes Foundation Basil O'Connor Scholar Award, and the 2012 NIH director's Early Independence Award.

2013 Second Runners-up

Weizhe Hong: For his essay on the topic of developmental biology, "Assembly of a neural circuit." Dr. Hong was born in Beijing, China and received a B.Sc. degree in biological sciences at Tsinghua University. When he was in high school and college, he worked with Zengyi Chang on mechanisms of protein folding and microbial stress response, first at Tsinghua University and then at Peking University. He received his Ph.D. degree at Stanford University, working under the guidance of Liqun Luo. His Ph.D. research focused on the cellular and molecular mechanisms of wiring specificity during olfactory system development. Dr. Hong received the Genetics Society of America's Larry Sandler Memorial Award for the best Ph.D. dissertation on Drosophila research, and he presented the Larry Katz Memorial Lecture at the Cold Spring Harbor Conference for the best Ph.D. dissertation on neural circuit research. He is currently a Helen Hay Whitney Fellow at California Institute of Technology, working on neural mechanisms underlying social and emotional behaviors in David Anderson's laboratory, working in David Anderson's laboratory on neural mechanisms underlying social and emotional behaviors.

Dominic Schmidt: For his essay on the topic of genomics, "Dynamics and evolution of vertebrate transcriptional regulator binding." Dr. Schmidt is a Strategy Consultant at L.E.K. Consulting in London. He received his Ph.D. in Oncology from the University of Cambridge. In his doctoral work, he combined experimental and computational approaches across multiple species to study how gene-regulation and genomes are evolving. Prior to his Ph.D., he received German diploma degree in biochemistry from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics and the Free University of Berlin. Since 2012, he has worked as a strategic advisor to the biopharma and life sciences industry.


About SciLifeLab

Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) is a Swedish center for molecular biosciences with a focus on health and environmental research. The center combines frontline technical expertise with advanced knowledge of translational medicine and molecular bioscience. SciLifeLab provides the technology needed for optimal usage of resources unique to Sweden and Scandinavia, among them clinical material in the form of biobanks and excellent medical records. SciLifeLab is a national resource and a collaboration among four universities in Stockholm and Uppsala: Karolinska Institutet, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm University and Uppsala University. For further information, visit

About Science/AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal Science, a leading international journal covering all scientific disciplines, as well as Science Translational Medicine and Science Signaling. AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes some 261 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

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