Zoonotic transmission is a global problem of devastating consequences. COVID-19 has made this painfully evident, but many epidemics were zoonotic in origin. Human examples include Anthrax, Ebola, or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)—which infects 38 million people and remains a major health problem. Zoonotic transmissions are even more devastating in endangered species.
Zoonosis generates dangerous outbreaks because the newly infected species is naïve to the pathogen and unable to control infections. Further, we often have no knowledge about the pathogen’s mechanisms of action and host’s mechanisms of defence, which limits medical/veterinary action. Generating this knowledge in advance is impossible because we don’t know which pathogens will jump species, and wild reservoirs are unavailable to medical research. We will use evolutionary biology to generate this critical knowledge. Zoonotic pathogens have infected reservoir species for long time periods, and these species evolved to limit pathogenicity. Pandemic HIV for example was born when the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) was transmitted from chimpanzees to humans, which develop into AIDS. But many African primates live with SIV with little consequences because their genomes carry adaptations that limit its pathogenicity.
We will study these adaptations to shed light into how hosts control a potentially deadly virus. Coupling novel genomic datasets with analytical approaches we will identify the genetic adaptations that chimpanzees and other primates to control SIV. We will then test whether these genes are associated with variation in HIV progression to establish if genes involved in host adaptation shape the fate of zoonotic disease.