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The Global Perspective
CHORI Receives $1 Million National Science Foundation Grant

CHORI clinical scientist Deborah Dean, MD, MPH, has just received a highly competitive $1 million joint National Science Foundation (NSF) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant to analyze the diversity of Chlamydiaceae bacterial strains responsible for a variety of severe infections in domestic livestock. Known as the number one cause of sexually transmitted bacterial infections in the world, chlamydial bacteria also infect other mammals and birds.

“Bacterial infections in livestock actually present a very high economic burden, both in the U.S. and globally, with severe infections casuing a variety of problems.”

While not often a news-catching headline, bacterial infections in livestock actually present a very high economic burden, both in the US and globally, with severe infections causing a variety of problems such as spontaneous abortions in sheep, goats, pigs and cattle, reduced fertility among cattle, reproductive failure in pigs and severe respiratory and intestinal disease among poultry.

"In my case, I've been discovering that microbial communities are very important in human health but it's hard to get National Institutes of Health funding to really investigate them thoroughly because these types of comparative genomic studies are so expensive," says Dr. Dean, who has risen to the top of her field over 2 decades of dedicated Chlamydia research.

"Instead, I decided to try coming at it from a different direction, to look at the diversity of strains that specifically affect animals and domestic livestock that may then jump hosts, just as with the current swine flu strain."

Unlike the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which specifically focuses on funding research that is directly relevant to people and their health, the NSF and USDA traditionally have more interest in evolution, fundamental biology, educational training or animal well being. For this particular grant, the NSF partnered with the USDA and put out a request for proposal (RFP) for a microbial genome project.
"When I saw the RFP, I thought, this could be perfect. With a grant like this, we can focus on comparative genomics of the Chlamydiacea species to learn as much as we can about the evolution of the species."
Such studies will also provide the opportunity to discover how the species might jump from animals to humans, a critical question in terms of public health. One of only a few NSF grants CHORI has ever received, Dr. Dean's grant will involve taking all the known species of the bacteria as well as a selection of strains that infect birds, mammals and humans, and comparing their genomes - all the genes that make up each bacteria species.

Dr. Dean will look for evidence of an evolutionary strategy, and look for ways in which these organisms could be better classified. With this type of comparative genomics, Dr. Dean will hopefully be able to identify exactly what is going on in terms of genetic reassortment and reshuffling and how that impacts evolution and the emergence of a new species and strains.

"This grant provides the opportunity to take the field to a whole different level in terms of understanding this very important organism and how different species and strains of the organism may or may not interact," says Dr. Dean.
With the 3-year grant beginning on September 1, 2009, Dr. Dean will be able to pursue questions related to how stable the organism is and how rapidly it changes, recombines and forms new species. This information will provide the foundation for a classification system to more readily identify which strains are more or less virulent, and which strains have the potential to jump to humans.

"I do think it marks the beginning of a new era in understanding that there should be more cross fertilization between NSF research and research traditionally undertaken by NIH," says Dr. Dean. "I think people are recognizing that we need a much greater understanding not of just one particular niche of how the organism functions, but a more global perspective, and it's very exciting to be a part of it."

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011 8:19 AM

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