Searching for the source of the next pandemic often leads evolutionary biologist Dr. Justin Bahl far from his air-conditioned academic office at the school’s Center for Infectious Diseases. During the summer, if there is a new moon, look for him on an airboat in the swamps of East Texas. He will be holding a duck.
[Photo: Dr. Justin Bahl, associate professor of Epidemiology, Human Genetics & Environmental Sciences at The University of Texas School of Public Health, holds a Blue-wing teal duck while Andy Ramey from USGS Alaska takes a blood sample. (Anahuac National Wildlife Reserve, Texas, spring 2015.)]
But that is where the similarities between Dr. Bahl’s duck hunt and Duck Dynasty end. He is not looking for a trophy to mount on his wall; he is hunting for viruses in live birds to learn how they emerge, spread, and evolve, and their potential for infecting domestic poultry and humans.
Dr. Bahl is an associate professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at The University of Texas School of Public Health, which is part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
When he is not in the field, Dr. Bahl is contributing to new discoveries in infectious disease phylodynamics, an emerging branch of evolutionary biology that has been gaining steam thanks to breakthroughs in genetic sequencing. A recent paper in Science, to which he contributed, sheds light on the 1994 Puerto Rican outbreak of dengue, a potentially fatal mosquito borne disease that infected more than 24,000 people. Here Dr. Bahl discusses his work:
What kind of insight does evolutionary biology give us into viruses?
The best way to understand a virus is to characterize its genome. Because genes are heritable products, we can use evolutionary theory to create a hypothesis of its generation. Which virus is related to which? How are they related? When did they emerge? How many people (or animals) are they infecting? Then we can also make inference of geographic movement from our characterization as well as other aspects of ecology. Ultimately we hope to discover what viruses pose the highest risk, and what situations allow viruses to jump between species.