Help University of Minnesota scientists gain a better understanding of how brainworm is transmitted from deer to moose.
Minnesota’s moose population is declining, due in large part to a fatal disease caused by a parasite. The parasite has become known as “brainworm” based on a component of its life cycle in which it lives around the brain of deer and moose. It causes no ill effects to deer, but infection with the parasite often results in severe disease and can be fatal for moose.
So, how do we prevent moose from getting the parasite from deer when they share the same habitat? The challenge in controlling the disease stems from our limited understanding of where and when moose are infected with the parasite. We know that snails and slugs play a role in transmission, but we don’t know which ones are important and when or where moose are consuming the infected gastropods. Those are some of the answers that UMN veterinary epidemiologist Tiffany Wolf is hoping to get with a new set of genetic tests that can be used to study the parasite population in deer and identify the snails that moose are consuming across different habitats. With that information, scientists will have better understanding of the ecology of this parasitic disease and thus strategies for preventing it in moose.
Your generous donation will allow experts at the University of Minnesota Genomics Center to create and validate the tests that Dr. Wolf needs to help moose survive.
- These tests will help Dr. Wolf study this disease without capturing moose.
- Dr. Wolf will use moose and deer poop to study this parasite!
- A partnership between the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and the Grand Portage Band makes this research possible.
The life of a Brainworm:
Brainworm is a parasitic worm with a natural life cycle that includes multiple species. White-tailed deer (WTD) are the natural host where adult worms reproduce within the tissue around the brain. After being transported through the body as eggs, brainworm larvae are passed out of the body in the feces. Once in the environment, brainworm larvae develop further inside of gastropods (snails and slugs), which are then eaten by WTD where they develop into adults and around the brain and begin to reproduce. And the cycle begins again! Although WTD are not harmed by the parasite in its body, moose that become infected will develop disease (characterized by abnormal behavior, circling, head tilt, among other things) and often die. Here is a video that shows what a moose with brainworm looks like.
How can genetics help?
Major gaps in our knowledge of the brainworm life cycle challenge our ability to stop infection in moose. Historically, a scientist’s method for studying the role of snails in the life cycle has involved attracting snails to wet cardboard left along the forest floor and sampling snails from there. The number of brainworm-infected snails collected with this method has been so low that scientists often have to screen tens of thousands of snails just to find a few with brainworm larvae. So, what if this technique is not attracting the right species of snails (for example, the species that are primarily involved the brainworm life cycle)? What if the behavior of snails changes after they are infected with brainworm too, so they are no longer attracted to wet cardboard as they would if they were uninfected? This is one of the ways that genetics can provide a solution. Instead of sampling cardboard baits for living snails that may or may not be eaten by moose, we can collect moose poop and test for DNA of snails directly eaten by moose. The DNA will help us identify their species and narrow the list of prospective snails that play a role in this fascinating life cycle. UMN scientists will know they’ve hit the jackpot when their tests are able to identify snail and brainworm DNA together in the same poop samples! That means they are likely detecting snails that were infected with brainworm when they were consumed by the moose. With a list of newly identified snail species that scientists know moose are eating (and some that were likely infected with brainworm), they can go back in the field to learn more about where these snails live in moose and deer habitat to identify ways to break the cycle of transmission!