Aquatic specialists apply deadly fish virus research to real world problems

BowserFish health specialist Dr. Paul Bowser of Cornell’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology recently received his third award in the last four years. Bowser and his collaborator, New York Sea Grant Fisheries Specialist Dave MacNeill, accepted an award for Extension and other Outreach Efforts after using recent research results on Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus to educate the public and promote environmental stewardship. The Sea Grant Association bestowed its first “Research to Application Award” on October 20th 2010, honoring the duo’s successful and continued application of SGA-funded research to help solve problems in the real world.

An extension of the congressional National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program, the Sea Grant program promotes coastal stewardship by supporting relevant research, education, and extension programs at universities in every state touching a coast or a Great Lake. Since returning to Cornell as faculty in 1985, Dr. Paul Bowser ’70, B.S., has received continual funding from New York’s Sea Grant program for his work in the field of aquatic animal medicine. “These grants are hard to get,” says department chair Dr. Avery August, “but Dr. Bowser has gotten eight of them and put them to good use. An award like this highlights how our interdisciplinary programs and faculty can partner with colleagues outside of Cornell and reach out to wider communities.”

The researchers’ fish disease expertise proved particularly relevant when Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus (VHSV) first appeared in the Northeast in 2005. The foreign animal disease has since been found in every Great Lake and several of its subsidiary water systems, devastating wild fish populations. Funded by the New York Sea Grant Program and other sources, Bowser and MacNeill were involved with some of the premiere research and outreach initiatives on the epidemic. While it does not affect humans, the virus causes deadly hemorrhaging and anemia in fish, and strains of the virus in Europe have wreaked havoc on rainbow trout populations across the pond. So far the disease has not infected aquaculture on this continent, but it has already been found in 28 different North American freshwater species of wild fish.

“The strain we’re dealing with in North America is different from that found in Europe and does not appear to affect rainbow trout,” says Bowser, “but it does infect other important species such as muskellunge, yellow perch, largemouth bass, and various other members of the sunfish family; all of which are prized in sport-fishing.” While the virus infects only fish, it may prove equally dangerous to the sport-fishing industry, which feeds $1.4 billion a year to New York State’s economy and generates nearly $4.2 billion a year across the Great Lakes Basin. “That’s people going fishing, buying gear, paying guides, spending money at restaurants and motels,” says Bowser. “It’s a huge economic entity. We hope to minimize the impact of VHSV on the economy and the environment.”

After a series of major mortalities following the outbreak, the virus seems to have quieted down since 2008, and Bowser’s team is trying to figure out why. “We may be seeing a classic example of what happens when a new pathogen enters a new area. When it first arrives, the fish have never seen it before, and many become severely affected. As time goes on, the population grows more accustomed to the virus.” But the threat is far from over, and the sleeping virus remains in the population.

“You could almost compare it to what happens with the Flu virus,” says Bowser. “Every 20 years or so we have a major shift in the genetic makeup of the influenza virus. In that particular year, a lot of people get severely sick from the new strain. As time goes on, the population becomes more accustomed to the new influenza virus, until the virus mutates and the cycle starts again.” Both the VHSV and the influenza virus are RNA viruses. Lacking the enzymes that proof-read replication in DNA viruses, RNA viruses tend to make copying mistakes, causing high rates of mutation. “So far the various VHSV isolates we’ve found have been very similar to those first found in the Great Lakes in 2005. They have not yet initiated a major genetic change, but we predict that might eventually occur.”

Environmental stressors probably also contributed to the virus’s initial impact during its first three years. Warm springtime temperatures in 2005, 2006, and 2007 may have been a blessing to winter-bound humans, but coldblooded fish were not so lucky. Preferring a stable environment, fish find rapid change hard, especially changes in temperature. “Springtime is a bad time for fish,” says Bowser. “It’s when we see the highest mortalities from a wide variety of diseases in both aquaculture and in the wild. So we have many fish pouring their resources into springtime spawning while dealing with rapid temperature changes, and in comes a new pathogen they’ve never seen before. It’s the perfect storm.”

Cooler springtime temperatures in 2008, 2009, and 2010 combined with growing tolerance in fish populations may have helped lessen the disease’s impact, but as Bowser says, “it’s important to realize the virus is still there.” Over the past five years the Aquatic Animal Health Program, which Bowser coordinates has conducted surveillance efforts, collecting and testing fish all over the Great Lakes. They have found that at least some of the fish collected from many locations are still carrying the virus. “If you go out without a coat on in the winter, you’ll probably get a cold. There are always viruses present in the environment, but the stress to your immune system allows those you carry to act up. It’s the same with fish. If we have a warm spring this year, if the virus mutates, if anything rocks the boat, we might see another outbreak.”

Yet ecological factors are only part of the equation. Human activity plays a major part in aquatic health, and that is the element of Bowser’s work that the “Research to Application Award” seeks to recognize. In addition to their pioneering research on the outbreak, Bowser and MacNeill have spearheaded efforts to inform coastal users and stakeholders about the disease and what they can do to help. Dr. James Casey, a virologist and one of Bowser’s colleagues in the Aquatic Animal Health Program at Cornell developed quantitative RT-PCR method to detect the virus. This vastly improvement in detection capabilities has provided timely insight into the virus, its spread, and its impact on Great Lakes fisheries.

Dr. Casey joined Bowser and MacNeill in producing and disseminating informational materials about VHSV and how to limit its spread and minimize impact. The trio presented at New York State aquaculture workshops in 2009 and 2010 and demonstrated applicable bio-security measures developed by the Aquatic Animal Health Program for fish culturists, including methods of disinfection, containment, and prevention. In workshop evaluations, 100 percent of attendees indicated they would use the guidelines in their aquaculture facilities, and share them with others in the field.

Dr. Bowser has received several awards in the past few years, including the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Faculty Service in 2007, and the S.F. Snieszko Distinguished Service Award from the American Fisheries Society in 2009, honoring his career achievement and contributions to aquatic medicine. He will continue his work at the Aquatic Animal Health Program at Cornell, providing service to fish enthusiasts, aquaculture practitioners, and partnering with the New York State Department of Conservation fish pathology unit to investigate wild fish kills like those caused by VHSV.

“We’re keeping an eye on things,” says Dr. Bowser, who is already gearing up for next summer’s surveillance activities, during which his crew will collect and test fish across all the Great Lakes Basin for VHSV and other pathogens. “We can’t cure the virus, but we can learn as much as possible about it and keep people informed.”

NIH grant takes grad students on journey from gene to organism

John SchimentiFifteen faculty members from disciplines across campus will combine their experience as research educators to encourage the exploration of vertebrate developmental genomics to potentially improve the understanding of how genes guide development, thanks to a $659,529 training grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The grant will support three graduate students who have demonstrated an interest in both the subject and the collaborative research approach; it is intended to engage a new generation of scientists in multidisciplinary research. Spanning the lifetime of an organism, development encompasses processes from inception and growth to aging and death. Developmental genomics looks at development through a genetic lens and can help unlock the molecular mysteries of how cancer grows and spreads.

“The classical discipline of developmental biology involves careful observation of anatomy during developmental processes like growth and aging, whereas genomics focuses on activity at the molecular level. Developmental genomics is a fusion of the two,” said John Schimenti, the James Law Professor of Anatomy and principal investigator on the grant. He teaches genomics through the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We hope to train students who understand the biology of development and are excited to use genomics tools to understand how development works, from gene to organism.”

Each of the 15 faculty trainers brings a unique perspective to the table, merging experience areas from classical developmental biology, functional genomics and developmental genetics to computational genomics, neurobiology, reproductive biology, early post-implantation development and cancer research. The faculty trainers will mentor, supervise and support the selected graduate students for up to three years. Each year, three awardees will be chosen to develop specialized expertise in vertebrate developmental genomics, investigating the role of genes in the ways cells grow, differentiate and form tissues in the body. The students will participate in activities through Cornell’s Center for Vertebrate Genomics, including attending a monthly journal club, presenting at Cornell’s vertebrate genomics research forum, creating posters for symposia and presenting their work at conferences.

The NIH-supported program will take place in the context of Cornell University’s Life Sciences Initiative and will be facilitated under the umbrella of Cornell’s Center for Vertebrate Genomics, which will offer administrative and infrastructure support.

“University support helped us develop an innovative paradigm to train scientists who can work at the intersection of disciplines and bring a comparative approach to the challenge at hand,” said Schimenti. “The NIH resources will help us to sustain the program and prepare additional scientists who can leverage the tools and resources from diverse fields in a world where biotechnology is moving at lightning speed. The silos of the past are no longer sufficient; the answers to our most difficult challenges and exciting questions in biology require intrepid scientists who embrace the breathtaking power of modern tools from multiple disciplines.”

This is the second NIH-supported training grant secured by faculty in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Mark Roberson, professor of physiology and chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, collaborates with faculty to prepare students to merge the studies of reproductive sciences and genomics.

“Training programs like these bring groups together, providing resources to support many different labs, colleges and students,” Schimenti said. “We are merging perspectives to develop a more complete picture, and offering our graduate trainees enviable training opportunities in the process.……

Helm changes hands at the AQUAVET® program for aquatic medicine

Helm changes hands at the AQUAVET® program for aquatic medicine

Getchell and BowserDr. Rod Getchell has assumed leadership of the AQUAVET training program for aquatic medicine. After 25 years of service, Getchell’s collaborator Dr. Paul Bowser has passed on the Associate Director’s banner. As Associate Director, Getchell will organize the program’s logistics, including everything from helping construct curricula, finding instructors, arranging field trips and accommodations, and booking teaching spaces, to orchestrating admissions and answering deluges of questions from prospective students. Throughout his work Getchell will carry on the program’s tradition as the gold standard for hands-on training in aquatic medicine.

An aquatic animal health specialist, Getchell brings a wealth of relevant experience to his new position at the helm. After earning his M.S. in 1983 for research on salmon diseases at Oregon State University, Getchell spent many years in the field of aquatic health, studying diseases of crustaceans and mollusks in Maine as a Marine Pathologist. Coming to Cornell in 1990, Getchell earned his PhD while doing research and diagnostic work in several different labs. He eventually landed in the lab of Paul Bowser, where he has since contributed to research on a variety of fish diseases. Getchell has worked on independent fish disease research projects as principal investigator on grants he has written, including a new project funded by the USDA Agriculture Animal and Plant health Inspection Service (APHIS) investigating testing methods for Viral Hemorraghic Septicemia Disease Virus.

In his new role as Associate Director of AQUAVET, Getchell unites his research credentials with his experience in several of the world’s leading aquatic immersion-learning programs, including the SEA Semester field program in marine studies, Shoals Marine Lab programs in marine science, and the AQUAVET program itself. He has spent many years helping Bowser and is well equipped to steer its future course. “AQUAVET has matured over the years, and is now one of the top programs of its kind in the country,” says Getchell. “I am happy to serve as Associate Director of such a program, and will make sure it maintains that high level of excellence.”

The AQUAVET program provides its participants with the intensive immersion training environment they need to get their feet wet in the field of aquatic medicine. Cornell has cosponsored the program with the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania since the Program began 1977, guided by the belief that the veterinary profession is poised to benefit the health of aquatic environments and the animals they shelter. Veterinary students, biological researchers, and animal health practitioners from across the nation and around the world convene on the coast to learn from the program’s diverse instructors. Every year as many as 40 invited faculty come to teach about their respective fields.

The program offers two courses: a broad overview of aquatic organisms from invertebrates to marine mammals, and a specialized program focusing on the comparative pathology of aquatic animals. AQUAVET has helped spawn many successful careers, reflecting the program’s goal to “identify, stimulate, and encourage as many potential leaders of this emerging branch of veterinary medicine as possible.” Alumni include the chief veterinary pathologist at San Diego’s Sea World, and veterinarians at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the National Zoo in DC, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Others now teach as faculty at top universities including UPenn, UC Davis, Tufts, NC State, Florida, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Oregon State and Cornell.

Department of Immunology chair Dr. Avery August acknowledged the contributions of Bowser, who is stepping down after more than two decades of service. “On behalf of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and the College of Veterinary Medicine, I would like to thank Dr. Paul Bowser for his excellent service leading the AQUAVET Program for more than 25 years,” says August. “Over this period, this program has gained international visibility and recognition as one of the best programs of its kind.”

Bowser’s educational odyssey began at Cornell and proved to be a round-trip. Back when Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources was known as the Department of Conservation, Bowser earned a B.S. in Fishery Science in 1970 while training in the Naval ROTC Program, then earned his M.S. degree in 1972 at Iowa State University. He served in the Navy for two years as the Executive Officer of Oceanographic Unit FIVE on the USNS Harkness, and then for one year as an Instructor at the Naval Education Training Center in Newport, RI, where he taught ship handling and navigation. He went on to earn his PhD at Auburn University in 1978, served as an Aquatic Animal Health Specialist in the Aquaculture Program of the University of California, Davis, then he joined the faculty of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University. Docking back at Cornell, Bowser set anchor as a faculty member in 1985, and embarked on a successful multifaceted career in the field of aquatic animal health.

That career has garnered several awards along the way, including three in the last four years. Bowser won the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Faculty Service in 2007, the S. F. Snieszko Distinguished Service Award from the Fish Health Section of the American Fisheries Society in 2009 honoring Bowser’s career achievement, contributions, and service to the field of aquatic animal medicine, and the first-ever Sea Grant “Research to Application Award” for outreach and service addressing the outbreak of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus.

“This great record of service and accomplishment is irreplaceable, but we wish him well as he passes the torch to Dr. Rod Getchell,” says August. “Dr. Getchell has been well-trained by Dr. Bowser, and will continue this great record.”