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Tracking bird flu

By Daniella De Luca

Betty Strietelmeier

Betty Strietelmeier

Doctoral student studies Rio Grande water as potential transmission route for avian flu

Betty Strietelmeier fondly describes herself as a “lab rat.” Even before becoming a doctoral studies student at New Mexico State University, she immersed herself in a laboratory setting to examine microorganisms in the environment.

Recently, she has become involved in an environmental public health study funded through the Interdisciplinary Research Grants program (IRG) at NMSU.

With a high fatality rate, the H5N1 avian influenza virus (AIV) became a focus for her doctoral studies because of its potential threat to public health. She said infectious diseases have always kept her interest because many are highly resilient, and RNA viruses like AIV have the ability to mutate rapidly.

The study uses an innovative approach because it is investigating specific species of avian influenza or “bird flu” from an environmental perspective instead of examining birds or other mammals as other studies do. In this case, Strietelmeier will focus her research on water-borne pathogens in the Rio Grande watershed in New Mexico, at sites such as the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and Elephant Butte Lake.

Bosque del Apache near San Antonio, N.M., is a winter home to tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl thus increasing the likelihood of finding a variety of AIV, she said.

The project incorporates two water sampling seasons. In addition to collecting new samples, she will gather data from samples collected by previous NMSU researchers.

By doing surveys like this and interpreting the results along with other phylogenetic data, it could determine what kind of mutation could make the virus efficient in human-to-human transmission.

What Strietelmeier finds most disturbing about AIV transmission is the impact on the economy after the eradication of millions of chickens or other birds because of a virus. Poultry farms in Indonesia and other countries are multi-billion dollar industries and to have one chicken become infected and spread it to others at a market, for example, has devastating effects.

Strietelmeier has her bachelor’s in microbiology from NMSU, a master’s in genetics from the University of California, Davis, and recently returned to NMSU to work on her doctoral studies. She advanced to candidacy status while a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“Betty understands how science works and has a lot of practical skills like writing much of the IRG proposal,” said her adviser and professor Geof Smith, professor in the Biology Department and Molecular Biology Program.

This research is funded by the NMSU Office of the Vice President for Research through the IRG program and aspects of it were previously funded by the New Mexico Environment Department.

Strietelmeier is collecting water samples from the Rio Grande and checking the contents for the specific species of influenza virus.

If the influenza strain is detected in the Rio Grande waterways, she would like to determine its place of origin, and whether it could be transmitted by a host or through irrigation or other water-borne method. Water-borne pathogens such as AIV are not always hosted and transmitted by birds, but could instead be hosted by other mammalian carriers like dogs or cats, she said.

Strietelmeier currently works for the Southwest Center for Animal Health, Food Safety and Bio-Security at NMSU. The center is a collaborator on the project through the Food Microbiology Laboratory. After her doctoral studies, Strietelmeier plans on further study research of infectious diseases in some capacity.

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