Contact:
Terry Yates, (505) 277-6681
Steve Carr, (505) 277-1821

October 24, 2001

UNM’S HANTAVIRUS RESEARCH NAMED TO NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION’S NIFTY-50

Research conducted by University of New Mexico biologists has been chosen by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as one of the 50 discoveries made with NSF funding that have had the most influence or biggest impact on the lives of Americans.

Highlighted in an NSF publication titled, “Nifty 50,” the discoveries were chosen from 10’s of thousands of NSF funded projects since its inception in 1950.

The research, originally funded by the NSF in 1988 as part of UNM’s Sevilleta Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, helped make possible the rapid discovery of the cause of an outbreak of a deadly new virus that resulted in death in nearly half of the people who contracted it.

Sevilleta researchers Terry Yates and Robert Parmenter were able to suggest a possible reason for the outbreak based on information learned from research on small mammals and climate change not related at all to infectious disease.

“This represents a classic case for the importance of basic research in helping to solve real societal problems,” said Vice Provost for Research and Professor of Biology and Pathology Terry Yates.

Yates and collaborators at the Center for Disease Control, working in NSF-supported research collections at UNM’s Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB), were able to confirm the existence of the deadly virus in tissues archived in the museum’s collections prior to the original outbreak in 1993, proving the “new” virus had been present in New Mexico probably for millions of years and was just now being discovered.

The research helped track the killer virus to the deer mouse, a common rodent found throughout much of North America. The outbreak was centered in the American southwest, but human cases have now been confirmed in 30 states and three Canadian provinces. The new hantavirus is apparently transferred directly from rodents to humans by inhalation of contaminated dust particles.

Additionally, biologists at the NSF-funded Sevilleta LTER site in central New Mexico, were able to show rodent populations increased in the region dramatically in 1993 following a series of wetter and milder winters associated with the El Nino Southern Oscillation. Sevilleta researchers were also able to demonstrate an association with this weather pattern and increased cases of human plague.

Other NSF researchers have found similar biologically complex interactions among rodent populations, moths, oaks and climate to help explain the cycling of Lyme Disease in New York.

The NSF is the only federal agency devoted to supporting basic research in science, mathematics and engineering across all fields of math and science education at all levels.

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