Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG) is a widespread bacterial pathogen of chickens and turkeys that jumped to House Finches in eastern North America in 1994. For the past 16 years, this new songbird disease has been restricted in range to the east and Pacific Northwest of North America, but the pathogen is now spreading as an epizootic through the southwestern range of the House Finch. The purpose of the proposed research is to document this new outbreak of MG by collecting cultures of MG and archiving genome and transcriptome samples from finches during the first year of the appearance of MG in House Finches in Tempe, Arizona. This award will create a valuable set of samples for future research. By screening for genes that show rapid evolutionary change in both the host and the pathogen, it will be possible to identify those genes that are the central players in the host and pathogenicity by MG. The project will promote science education through the involvement of undergraduate students and include outreach to the general public about studies of MG at backyard feeding stations.

Project Report

Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG) is a widespread pathogen of chickens and turkeys, and in 1994 a strain of MG shifted hosts, infecting House Finches in Maryland. Subsequently, MG rapidly spread through the House Finch populations of eastern North America killing many millions for finches. In 2002 the first case of MG was reported from Montana and over the next six years MG spread in finch populations to the west coast and south as far as Los Angeles. In 2010, the first case of MG was confirmed in Tucson Arizona. As of August 2011, the disease has not been observed in the Phoenix area. The House Finch-MG system provides an important opportunity for researchers to the evolutionary responses of a vertebrate population to an emerging infectious bacterial pathogen as well as the responses by the bacterial pathogen to a novel host environment. Large samples of genetic materials for House Finches have been archived over the past decade. In order to study the co-evolution of the parasite and host it is important to archive genetic materials from both House Finches and MG at the time of initial emergence of the disease. In this one-year collecting effort, we captured 600 House Finches in Alabama and Arizona and preserved the tissues of 114 of these birds, 50 of which were infected by MG. We also cultured MG from infected House Finches. These samples constitute an invaluable archive for future research on host-parasite co-evolution. In addition four graduate students and six undergraduate students gained valuable training in field and lab techniques using funds from this grant award.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
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Samuel M. Scheiner
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Auburn University
United States
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