CSU professor leads West Nile virus research

Jessie Trudell

A laboratory of Colorado State University researchers are looking into the relationship between mosquitoes and anthropod-borne viruses — known as arboviruses — such as West Nile.

“A lot of our work at this moment remains focused on West Nile,” said Gregory Ebel, an associate professor in the CSU Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology. “It’s still a big problem here in Colorado and elsewhere in the U.S.”

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Associate Professor Greg Ebel references a photo from his research on malaria. Ebel, a graduate of CSU graduated without declaring a major and is now a top researcher in the U.S. (Photo credit: Megan Fischer.)
Associate Professor Greg Ebel references a photo from his research on malaria. Ebel, a graduate of CSU graduated without declaring a major and is now a top researcher in the U.S. (Photo credit: Megan Fischer.)

Ebel became interested in public health in college after working in Africa as part of a fresh water project, which led to an interest in tropical diseases. He then applied to a tropical public health program at Harvard School of Public Health and gravitated toward a mentor who specialized in tick and mosquito studies.

“My Ph.D. project was about a tick-borne virus that is related to West Nile virus,” Ebel said. “I was offered a job as part of the New York State Arbovirus Laboratory, and that experience cemented my interest and I’ve just kept working on them since.”

Ebel and his team at CSU focus on how West Nile interacts with different kinds of hosts, such as mosquitoes or birds. They observe how each of these hosts can shape the evolution of the virus.

“One central discovery was that the West Nile virus has the ability to rapidly adapt to new environments,” Ebel said. “We also discovered that different kinds of birds have different impacts on virus evolution, which means you could potentially predict what kind of ecologies might be more or less likely to lead to rapid virus evolution.”

Ebel also noted that transmission by mosquitoes actually weakens the strength of the virus, because it results in a decline of viral fitness. He noted that this is surprising because arboviruses actually need mosquitoes to survive in nature.

A close-up look at mosquitos in Greg Ebel’s lab. Ebel is the director of the Arthropod-borne and Infectious Diseases Laboratory. (Photo courtesy of SOURCE.)
A close-up look at mosquitos in Greg Ebel’s lab. Ebel is the director of the Arthropod-borne and Infectious Diseases Laboratory. (Photo courtesy of SOURCE.)

“A second kind of project that we do involves surveillance testing for Fort Collins and Loveland during the summer,” Ebel said. “This is where we live and we want to make it a better place.”

Ebel and his team are also currently working on a reverse genetics system to study the Zika virus.

“There are several studies planned that we hope will help respond to this new virus in a reasonable and rational way,” Ebel said.

Ebel discussed another current project known as xenosurveillance, which is being conducted in rural Liberia.

“The goal is to use mosquitoes as little flying robots that sample human blood and use that blood to look for emerging viruses that have recently jumped into humans,” Ebel said. “We’ve gotten a lot of help from the CSU Vice President for Research to get this project going, and we’re very grateful for it.”

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Collegian Reporter Jessie Trudell can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @JessieTrudell.