Montana State University

Research Roundup at Montana State University (#28

September 15, 2008 -- From MSU News Service

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Smoky bears

Smoke from forest fires drove Jack Hopkins to higher ground this summer, but the Montana State University graduate student was still able to finish his field work in Yosemite National Park. Hopkins collects hair that black bears leave behind on barbed wire, then analyzes the DNA. He wants to know what the hair reveals about the bears' diets, especially how much human food they eat. Are bears that eat more human food genetically different from those that don't? In part of the study, Hopkins will compare the hair of modern bears with that of bears that ate from park dumps in the 1930s. Hopkins, a former park biologist in Yosemite, came to MSU to work under the supervision of Chuck Schwartz, a research wildlife biologist in the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, and ecologist Steve Kalinowski.

Brucellosis challenges

Brucellosis would be easier to fight if bison weren't so social and curious and if they weren't a national symbol, said David Pascual, an MSU researcher in veterinary molecular biology. Bison live in herds and tend to investigate when they see something that piques their curiosity. They might move in to check out a stillborn calf that was aborted due to brucellosis, for example, and in the process, eat the placenta or inhale brucellosis spores. They can spread infection through breeding. It would also be simpler if elk were vaccinated against brucellosis or if brucella came in one form instead of seven, Pascual said. But scientists have to work within reality, he added. As a result, he is using a multi-tiered approach to develop a more effective vaccine against brucellosis.

Schizophrenic link

A possible link between schizophrenia and the parasite Toxoplasma gondii has long been suggested, says MSU microbiologist Sandra Halonen. To investigate the theory, Halonen received a grant from the Stanley Medical Research Institute for a two-year pilot study. Halonen will receive brain tissue from the institute's brain bank. Some of the donors had schizophrenia and others didn't. Halonen and technician Woody Cranston will examine the tissue for Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that people mostly hear about in relationship to cat litter. Pregnant women are warned not to change cat litter because it could contain Toxoplasma gondii, a threat to their unborn children. Evidence of the parasite, if present in the brain tissue, will show up during staining or in molecular tests, Halonen said.

Susceptible area?

What is there about Eastern Montana that lends itself to West Nile virus and bluetongue? Sixteen Montana counties, most of them in Eastern Montana, were quarantined in 2007 because of a bluetongue outbreak in sheep. West Nile virus has been more prevalent in Eastern Montana than the rest of the state. Greg Johnson, veterinary entomologist at MSU, said Eastern Montana has an abundance of the habitat that's necessary for the insects that transmit those diseases. Besides that, bluetongue and West Nile often surface during a drought. As water sources dwindle, animals and insects gather at the same places. If biting midges carry bluetongue, they can pass it along to sheep. If mosquitoes carry West Nile virus, they can pass it along to horses, birds and humans.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu