In the distant jungles of Africa, Virginia Tech researcher Dr. Taranjit Kaur and her family are trying to figure out how to protect the endangered chimpanzee population from human diseases.
After studying chimpanzees in Tanzania's Mahale Mountains National Park for the past year as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Kaur and her team have published an account of their ground-breaking research in the August edition of the American Journal of Primatology. The issue features a special section on ''Disease Transmission, Ecosystems Health and Great Apes Research.''
The journal article presents data from molecular, microscopic, and epidemiological investigations that demonstrate how the chimpanzees living in the park have been suffering from a respiratory disease. Researchers say they suspect the disease is likely caused by a variant of a human paramyxovirus.
Their field studies and discoveries could prompt a re-examination of policies regarding human interaction with chimpanzees, the closest genetic relative of humans, in the national park. That's because there's a chance the chimps may have caught the diseases from scientific researchers who have been studying the chimpanzees for decades, and from tourists whose spending has sparked much needed economic activity in the impoverished region.
However, Kaur says she believes more research must be done. ''Although evidence increasingly suggests that infectious diseases may be transmitted from research teams and eco-tourists to endangered great apes, we believe that this is still a bit of a leap,'' said Kaur, who has been collaborating with scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and researchers from Japan. ''More research must be conducted in order to establish a comfortable level of proof.''
Kaur, an assistant professor in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine's Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, her husband Jatinder Singh, a research assistant professor and molecular biologist at Virginia Tech, and their daughter have spent most of 2008 living in primitive facilities near the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
There, the family has learned to adjust to life in the jungle, where diseases such as malaria and cholera can be contracted and dangerous creatures must be avoided.
Kaur and her team have been conducting their research with the aid of a novel,
eco-friendly field laboratory called PLUG, which is an acronym for ''portable laboratory on uncommon ground.''
The idea for PLUG came from Singh's frustration over ''trying to conduct space-age science with stone-age tools at geographically remote study sites.''
''In the past, investigators have been bringing parts of the natural world into the laboratory for scientific study,'' she said. ''Now we can bring the expertise and rigor of the laboratory into the natural world.''
Kaur and Singh have been working for several years with Tanzania National Parks and Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute officials on the project that seeks to protect the endangered species.
The research is sponsored through a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER grant awarded to Kaur in 2003 so she can develop a more "holistic" approach for the integration of technology, research and education through a program called ''Bush-to-Base Bioinformatics.''
Virginia Tech researchers studying the possibility of human-animal disease transferral have teamed up with an interior-design professor on a custom design-build project to create a two-in-one portable research laboratory and dwelling that leaves no trace of its presence when removed.
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