A research project to reduce public health risks from vole outbreaks

    Its results will provide new insights into the genomics, dynamics and circulation of tularemia in Castilla y León, a reportable human infectious disease whose main amplification factor is found in common vole outbreaks.

    One of the major challenges for society is to solve health problems, among which are those related with wildlife diseases, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, emerging infectious diseases (EID) are a growing burden for public health and the global economy, and most of them are zoonotic.

    In order to improve our understanding of zoonotic outbreaks, we need long-term, empirical and integrative ecological and epidemiological studies, and as wildlife populations are dynamic, it is essential to consider abundance fluctuations to understand how zoonoses are maintained in the middle term, its spread and the transmission routes that affect people ultimately.

    This is the context of the “R+D+i Project” entitled "BOOMRAT: Population fluctuations of wild rodents and public health: ecology and dynamics of bacterial zoonotic diseases in northwest Spain”, aims to address, thanks to the “Research Challenges” modality of the Spanish Program for Knowledge Generation and Scientific and Technological Strengthening of the R+D+i System and the Spanish Program of R+D+i Directed on the Challenges of Society, of the 2017-2020 Spanish Plan for Scientific and Technical Research and Innovation.

    Common vole (Microtus arvalis).

    Many rodents act as hyper-reservoirs for zoonoses, and some species are characterized by experiencing explosive fluctuations in abundance (“boom-bust“ dynamics), becoming agricultural pests and disease vectors. Studying zoonoses linked to fluctuating rodent populations requires a dynamic approach that assesses "who" participates in transmission cycles, "how" the pathogen is transmitted to humans, and "why" these aspects vary in space and time.

    Thus, this project will focus on Francisella tularensis, the etiological agent of tularemia, a reportable human infectious disease that recurrently affects northwest Spain (Castilla y León), with more than 1,500 official cases recorded in humans to date. The project will last 3 years and will be led by the researchers Juan José Luque-Larena, from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenierías Agrarias of the Universidad de Valladolid, and François Mougeot, from the Research Group in Game Resources and Wildlife Management of the Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos (IREC – CSIC, UCLM, JCCM).

    Researchers from the Instituto de Salud Carlos III, the Universidad de Córdoba, the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the National Institute of Health Dr. Ricardo Jorge (Portugal), the University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom) and the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel) also participate in the project.

    Populations of common vole (Microtus arvalis) are the main amplification factor of F. tularensis in the agricultural environments of Castilla y León, so that the main objective of the project is to link the disease-dependent amplification of the disease to vole populations and the environmental contamination that eventually lead to outbreaks of tularemia in humans.

    For this, it will be necessary to clarify the nature of the epidemiological relationship between F. tularensis and M. arvalis, to evaluate the hypothesis that recurrent tularemia outbreaks are the result of the periodic concatenation of "disease leaps" between species driven by vole dynamics, and to elucidate the role that other wildlife species (lagomorphs, predators, blood-sucking arthropods) play in the circulation and dissemination of F. tularensis. Thus, the results of this project will provide new insights into genomics, dynamics and circulation, at short and long distances, of F. tularensis subs. holarctica and other bacterial zoonoses in northwestern Spain.

    This research project includes a scholarship for the training of research staff (PhD grant) for which the term for evaluating applications is already open. Those interested in applying for the scholarship may contact Dr. François Mougeot by e-mail (francois.mougeot@uclm.es), attaching the CV and a cover letter.