CWD Research at UT

Core Research Teams

Currently, three core research teams (CRTs) are working on CWD projects from the aspects of (1) deer movement and genetics, (2) human dimension and economic impacts, and (3) prion detection and environmental manipulation.

Summary: Understanding nuanced aspects of the biology and ecology of deer is key to managing and modeling the spread of CWD. However, socioeconomic and human behaviors associated with recreational and subsistence hunting must also be considered if management strategies are to be effective.

We hypothesize that deer ecology and behavior, genetic variation, landscape features, and public support of management can be used to predict the local and regional transmission of CWD. We will build models of CWD transmission at the local scale by tracking deer movements and survival with satellite-GPS; quantifying deer and environment interactions; monitoring female reproduction and recruitment; and measuring population density and sex ratios. Regional models will combine this information with geospatial analysis of gene flow; genetic analysis of prion protein genes (markers that may be under selection to provide resistance to CWD); and effects of landscape features on CWD spread in collared deer. Effective strategies for disease mitigation must also include hunter and landowner willingness to participate in deer management actions. We ultimately expect to estimate how individual, local, and regional processes affect the spatial and temporal dynamics of CWD prevalence on the landscape.

This information will be the basis for all management recommendations. Combining disease modeling with human participation in management will provide a framework for mitigating CWD in a wild animal.  This project is being conducted in collaboration with not only UT scientists but also experts in TWRA, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Status: A proposal for this study was submitted to the National Science Foundation Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease Program on November 24, 2021.

Summary: Policy efforts to invest in CWD control and to engage hunters and landowners to manage CWD face multiple challenges, as we currently do not know: 1- how CWD outbreaks induce externality on the demand and value of hunting as an ecosystem service, 2- how resulting change in hunting demand impacts the hunting lease market and sectors of the regional economy, and 3- what psychosocial factors (e.g. risk perception, attitudes, trust)  drive hunter behavior and landowner behavior regarding CWD best management practices. We address this critical need by conducting social survey of hunters and non-hunting local public including the landowners, economically modeling the externality of CWD prevalence in stated as well as revealed preference methods of non-market valuation and regional economic input-output models of hunting economy, and by applying collective interest theory to understand landowner behavior regarding CWD management. Our analysis will shed light on how hunters and local population perceive the risk of CWD, how they may adjust their hunting (short and long term intentions), and land management behavior in response to CWD emergence, evaluate the relatively preferences and acceptability of various management actions to contain CWD, quantify CWD impact on hunters welfare, evaluate how hunters tradeoff between CWD risk and key hunting lease attributes, and quantify the anticipated economic impacts of CWD on local and regional economy.

Status: Projects under this objective are funded by multiple sources. First, a baseline survey of hunters and non-hunting public including the landowners in the CWD counties was funded by TWRA and completed in 2020. Research findings have been published in multiple journal articles. Second, a newly funded NIFA project in collaboration with Mississippi State University is looking deeper into the economic implications of CWD in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Summary: CWD causes drastic weight loss, stumbling, listlessness, and eventually death infected animals. Even in the face of National effort, CWD has continued to spread. Early detection, and management of CWD-affected animals is critically important for mitigation of the significant ongoing and future impacts of the disease. The methods currently used for detection of CWD prion include immunohistochemistry, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), Western blotting, protein misfolding cyclic amplification, and real-time quaking-induced conversion. The last two methods have improved sensitivity compared to that of the other methods; however, they require a laboratory setting, skilled examiner, and lengthy assay procedure. Based on our 15-year experience in the development of a rapid and sensitive protein detection platform, we propose to develop a new platform for detecting CWD prion in live animal samples. Live animal testing for CWD will help not only allow diagnosing wild cervids on-site; but will enable identification of degrees of resistance or effective immunity to the disease. Live animal testing opens the door to identify and track locally adapted disease pedigrees. The platform utilizes a combination of magnetic nanoparticles and our newly invented electrochemical detection method, which enables rapid detection of the protein with a higher sensitivity than ELISA.  We also aim to develop an inexpensive portable device for the electrochemical detection of CWD prion protein. Once a detection platform is developed for live animal sample testing, we will aim to improve and validate the platform for detection of CWD prions in the environment and then test various land management strategies (e.g., controlled burn, crop rotation) to find ways to either remove the pathogen from the environment or render inaccessible to deer (and others, including other animals and humans). 

Status: This project has been funded by UTIA AgResearch, OHI and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Proof-of-concept has been shown by using a model system (non-pathogenic prion), and the team will visit Kord Animal Health Diagnostic Lab in November 2021 – February 2022 to evaluate and validate the new test with live animal tissues.