U researchers join the elite in genetic studies

Justin Costley

Picking up where Louis Pasteur left off more than 200 years ago, University researchers have unlocked the secret to the genetic makeup of a bacterium named after the father of microbiology and launched themselves into an elite group of institutions.
The University team mapped the genetic code of Pasteurella multocide, one of the first bacterium that Pasteur tried to vaccinate, which is responsible for almost 2 million hospital visits per year.
The pathogen has its most devastating effect, however, on the agricultural industry, causing diseases such as fowl cholera in chickens and turkeys and respiratory diseases in cattle, poultry and swine. The bacterium has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for farmers nationwide.
The mapping puts the University into a select group of research schools with Stanford, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison as one of the few universities to successfully sequence the DNA structure of a bacterium.
While Madison was the first academic institution to publish the successful sequencing of an organism, the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine is the first veterinary college in the world to have completed a project such as this.
Vivek Kapur, associate professor of veterinary pathobiology and director of the University’s Advanced Genetic Analysis Center, led the research team.
He said understanding the genetic makeup of an organism through this mapping process will allow researchers to learn how the organism lives, survives and also how to defeat it.
“It’s really step one in trying to understand how organisms cause disease,” Kapur said. “Having the entire genetic makeup then allows you to ask questions as to which of those thousands of genes that are discovered are important to those processes.”
“Overall, what we like to do is find out how this organism causes disease and then develop intervention strategies to prevent it,” Kapur added.
Kapur’s research team — made up of graduate students Barbara May, Qing Zhang and Ling-Ling Li — was largely responsible for mapping the organism. The group examined 2.25 million base pairs of DNA in a year-long process that ended in January.
Much of the project’s funding came from agricultural organizations like the Minnesota Turkey Research and Promotion Council, which represents Minnesota’s turkey industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The University’s research is the first genome sequencing project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Jodi Day, executive director of the Minnesota turkey council, said the research is exciting because of what it could mean to the bacterium’s eventual eradication.
“Ultimately, we hope that it could lead to getting rid of Pasteurella or at least to better understand the bacteria and how to manage it.”
The team is also sequencing the genetic makeup of two other new microbes, including cryptosporidium, which can be a cause of serious diarrhea.
Lawrence Schook, a veterinary pathobiology professor, said the project has been a valuable educational experience for several University departments, graduate and undergraduate students. It might also lead to new vaccine and diagnosis possibilities.
“There’s been a lot of reward for students and technicians and other people,” Schook said.
“The biology, the infectious disease, the computer needs, the DNA sequencing needs — this project has kind of been a catalyst to bring all those together.”

Justin Costley covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3224.