FORT COLLINS – A Colorado State University research team has been awarded a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant to study transmission of chronic wasting disease.

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, affects members of the deer family and is similar to diseases like scrapie in sheep and mad cow disease – or bovine spongiform encephalopathy – in cattle. CWD is caused by misfolded proteins that resist breakdown by enzymes within cells. These proteins cause fatal, neurological damage.

The disease was first discovered in deer in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming by Colorado State scientists in the 1960s.

Understanding and managing CWD depends on developing predictive models that track how the disease spreads. CWD remains an important challenge for managing wildlife resources in Colorado.

“An important goal for disease ecologists is to predict how diseases change in populations. This study will enhance our ability to predict the dynamics of CWD but also will improve models of all types of diseases,” said Tom Hobbs, CSU professor and project leader. “Predicting the spread of disease is similar to forecasting the weather. It is crucial to understand all of the sources of uncertainty in model predictions. If you don’t do that, you will probably make forecasts that are falsely optimistic. Our contribution will be to increase the reliability of disease models using sophisticated methods for bring together mathematics, statistics and data.”

In this NSF-funded project, CSU scientists will model the impact of CWD on deer populations in an effort to better understand dynamics of transmission.

Investigators will conduct field studies on wild mule deer populations in northern Colorado and will focus on studying the mechanism of transmission. Additionally, they will take a look at how many susceptible individuals are infected by a single infected deer. Lastly, research will study how an individual’s genetic make-up makes it more or less susceptible to being infected with CWD.

The research team will investigate free-ranging populations where CWD is prevalent. The study will not cause any animal to become infected and will not change their risk of infection. Instead, the project scientists will learn about the disease by observing ongoing processes of disease transmission.

“We will be taking a close look at why some deer get sick with CWD and why some don’t. Is their susceptibility to the disease controlled by the environment where they live? By their genetics? By the other deer they contact? We want to understand the things that determine individual variation in disease transmission,” Hobbs said.

Beyond the primary field research aims of this project, some broad impacts include innovative training of graduate students; curriculum development and research experience for local K-12 teachers; outreach to Rocky Mountain National Park visitors; collaboration on disease management with wildlife agencies in western North America; and training for researchers in the modeling methods used in this project.

The interdisciplinary CSU team of researchers awarded the grant will be led by Hobbs and Mike Miller from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Team members include, Randy Boone, research scientist from the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory; Mike Antolin, biology professor; Jennifer Hoeting, associate professor of statistics ; and Simon Tavener, professor of math.

Article lookup by year