Governor’s Rural Challenge Forges Public/Private Partnership
By Bill Brown, Dean, UT AgResearch

In December 2012, Governor Bill Haslam challenged the Tennessee Farm Bureau, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, and the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) to develop a practical, affordable, and actionable strategy for making Tennessee the number one state in the Southeast in the development of new and prosperous agricultural and forestry industries over the next decade. Multiple action steps have been proposed to meet this challenge, with a focus on incentivizing the private sector through advancing rural infrastructure, ensuring a positive regulatory and policy environment, expanding marketing opportunities for Tennessee’s agriculture and natural resource producers, and increasing the rural workforce through career, technical, and higher education.

A major contributor to Tennessee’s farm gate revenue is centered on beef cattle production. Receipts from beef cattle sales are the number one agricultural indicator in Tennessee. However, over the past few years, Tennessee has dropped from ninth in the nation in beef cattle production to thirteenth due in part to a decrease in the state’s beef cow herd caused by economic and weather-related factors. In 2010, there were 997,000 beef cows in Tennessee; that number fell to 864,000 beef cows in 2013. Decreases in beef cow numbers in Tennessee have been more significant than those observed in other states. Only three states experienced reductions in beef cow numbers greater than 20 percent between 2007 and 2014, with Tennessee being one of them. The reduction in beef cow numbers is causing a great deal of concern to representatives of Tennessee’s beef cattle industry.

Tennessee has the land capacity and favorable environment to support expansion of the beef cow herd, which will help to recapture a greater share of the U.S. market. In support of this effort, a partnership has been established between the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Farmer’s Cooperative, and UTIA to initiate a beef heifer development program. Replacement heifer development is an expensive component of the beef cow/calf cycle due to the amount of time and resources it takes to bring the heifer to the point of production where she produces a marketable calf of her own and then successfully rebreeds for her second calf. Developing and demonstrating practices that maximize the efficiency and economics of this segment of the production cycle will assist beef producers and may also lead to the establishment of a new production system where heifers are developed off-site by custom growers, allowing beef cattle producers to maintain a greater number of cows on their farm.

A beef heifer development center will be established at the UT Dairy AgResearch and Education Center in Lewisburg where best management practices will be developed and utilized for efficient and economical heifer development. Dr. Justin Rhinehart, an Extension faculty member in the Department of Animal Science, and Kevin Thompson, director at the Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center, will be responsible for the program. Initially, one hundred heifers from private producers across Tennessee will be delivered to Lewisburg at weaning (September/October) and will be developed, bred, and either returned to the producer or sold in an auction the following August/September. All nutrition, health, handling, and reproductive management procedures utilized during the program will be recorded, including costs. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture will offer scholarships to producers through the Agricultural Enhancement Program to help defray a portion of their management costs.

Land preparation for the new facility is currently underway; see picture. We look forward to receiving the first group of heifers in September and October 2015.

International Honor for Entomologist Karen Vail

In February, the East Tennessee Pest Control Association endowed a scholarship fund for urban entomology students in honor of professor Karen Vail of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology. In March, she was recognized by her peers in the Southeastern Branch of the Entomological Society of America with the Distinguished Award in Urban Entomology. And now Vail has received an international honor.

Vail and collaborators on the StopPests in Housing Program received the International IPM Award of Recognition at the eighth international IPM Symposium. StopPests in Housing is an alliance of science educators operating through the Northeastern IPM Center at Cornell University that seeks to improve pest control in affordable housing by teaching everyone who works, lives, and plays in housing how to use integrated pest management (IPM). Since 2007, the alliance has brought IPM to affordable housing across the country with funding from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) interagency agreement.

Vail was recognized for sustained contributions to improve affordable housing and for implementing and introducing IPM to a new audience. The symposium awards committee said StopPests in Housing “has contributed substantially towards addressing housing conditions that threaten human health, reducing allergens in housing units and thereby lowering asthma rates in children living in these units.”

UTIA Professor Pioneers the Understanding of a Globally Emerging Virus

Rarely does a researcher have the opportunity to publish the first book on a subject unless that subject is on the cutting edge of science. Matthew Gray, a professor in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries and member of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, had just that opportunity this year as the lead editor for a book on ranaviruses published as Open Access in May 2015 by Springer. Open Access publishing, which means the book is fully accessible online, was made possible by funds provided by UT AgResearch, the Department of Forestry Wildlife and Fisheries, and the Office of Research and Engagement at UT Knoxville.

The book, “Ranaviruses: Lethal Pathogens of Ectothermic Vertebrates,” contains eight chapters, three of which were coauthored by Gray and one by his wife, Debra Miller, professor of wildlife pathology and director of the UTIA Center for Wildlife Health. Twenty-six authors from four countries contributed to the text. The target audience is ecologists, veterinarians, microbiologists, epidemiologists, and natural resource managers.

Ranaviruses belong to a group of DNA viruses in the family Iridoviridae. Although the pathogen was discovered in the United States in the 1960s, large-scale die-offs were not documented until the 1990s. Over 90 percent of the reported ranavirus cases have occurred since 2010. Infection and disease have been documented in more than 175 species of amphibians, fish, and reptiles. Biologists and veterinarians are working to understand the reasons for the recent emergence of ranavirus.

Scientists believe that commercial trade of infected fish, amphibians, and reptiles is resulting in the international transport of virulent ranavirus strains around the globe. Human effects on the environment, such as excessive pesticide use and climate change, also may be harming the immune system of hosts, thereby causing outbreaks.

Gray says preparation for the book started quickly. “Remarkably, the writing for this book started only twelve months ago, with all chapters and content editing completed by January 2015. That’s lightning fast in the world of book publishing.” 

Rapid publishing was made possible through Springer’s new eBook format that allows for instantaneous release online after production is completed. However, Gray says, “It was the dedication and hard work of the twenty-six authors and my coeditor, Greg Chinchar, that resulted in producing a high-quality publication in a short amount of time.”

The book covers all aspects of ranaviruses—from pathways for host infection and cell entry, to molecular biology of viral propagation, to evasion strategies the virus uses to hide from host immunological responses, to the pathological effects on the host. The book also covers the distribution, host range, evolution, and ecology of ranaviruses. The last chapter of the book covers the design of studies for surveillance and risk assessment of the pathogen. Gray teamed up with a former postdoc (Julia Earl) in the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis based at UT along with two other colleagues to write the chapter.

“During my MS and PhD, I took over 70 credits of mathematics and statistics courses, because I realized the usefulness of quantitative skills in conducting research. It was rewarding to rely on those skills to compose Chapter 8,” reflects Gray.

“Ranaviruses are a fascinating model system for viruses with the capability of infecting three classes of ectothermic vertebrate hosts—amphibians, fish, and reptiles, which is very rare for double-stranded DNA viruses. Additionally, they’re having global impacts on wild and captive populations. For example, the multi-billion dollar industries of the Chinese giant salamander and American bullfrog have experienced catastrophic losses in many production farms. Wild populations of frogs in Europe, the UK, and the U.S. also have been hit hard and experienced declines—in some cases by greater than 80 percent. So, studying the pathogen provides insights into virology, but also has strong economic and conservation implications.”

Gray spends a lot of his time at the Johnson Animal Research and Teaching Unit (JARTU), which is an animal research facility of the UT East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center. There, he conducts a variety of challenge experiments to learn about host susceptibility and transmission dynamics. He and Miller have trained dozens of undergraduate, graduate, and veterinary students, postdocs, and visiting scientists in wildlife disease ecology and pathology using ranaviruses as a model system.

“It is rewarding to see someone who dedicates one to four years of his or her life with you conducting experiments to move on and secure a position where they’re making a difference,” Gray indicates. “Alumni of our ranavirus team have gone on to veterinary, medical, and graduate school, worked with the Centers for Disease Control and John Hopkins University, secured positions in private industry and government agencies, and several are university faculty now training their own students.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Gray did not start as a disease ecologist. His interest began when he was working on his PhD, and he noticed a high prevalence of parasitic worms (called trematodes) in frogs and salamanders using agricultural wetlands in Texas. It was his work at the UT Plateau AgResearch and Education Center within the first year of arriving at UT that led him to study ranaviruses. Working with Miller, who at that time was at the University of Georgia and a colleague, they discovered ranavirus on the Cumberland Plateau, and infection in frog tadpoles was greater in ponds where cattle had access. 

Since then, Gray founded the Global Ranavirus Consortium, which is an organization of  more than a hundred professionals and students, with the goal of facilitating collaborative, interdisciplinary research on ranaviruses. Gray also serves as the cochair of a National Disease Task Team that responds to emerging infectious diseases in reptiles and amphibians, such as ranavirus and a new fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, that is killing salamanders.

“When I arrived at UT, if you asked me what ranavirus was, there would have been a blank stare. It is amazing how your career path evolves as a scientist,” Gray says. “One of the most rewarding aspects of working at UTIA is the support of the administration to seek new research directions. Because of that, hundreds of universities and organizations around the globe recognize UTIA and the Center for Wildlife Health as a leader of amphibian disease research and training.”

In the two weeks since publication, Gray’s ranavirus book has been downloaded more than 480 times. Thanks to Open Access publication support by UTIA and UT Knoxville this book is having substantial global impact.