Sabrina Desha works in the hood while Andree Hunkapiller and Alex Bolesky check in samples from a transport cooler.

Microbiologist Sabrina Desha works in the hood processing specimens while fellow microbiologist Andree Hunkapiller and student worker Alex Bolesky check specimens into the computer system from a transport cooler. 

Dec. 20, 2022
Story and photo by Jens Odegaard

There are plenty of questions in life that take an expert to answer. Why won’t my car start? Check with the mechanic. What is the meaning of life? See the philosopher or theologian of your choice. Where did the second sock go in the load of laundry? Unfortunately, there’s no expert for that one. 

If you’re a molecular diagnostician, one of the many questions about animal disease that you can answer is: “Does the elderly chimpanzee have COVID-19?” The answer that Noah Lawler came up with last year, was, thankfully for the chimpanzee, “No.” 

Lawler and his two fellow microbiologists work in the molecular diagnostics section of the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which is housed in the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine. Last year, 10,000 specimens were assessed by Lawler, Andree Hunkapillar and Sabrina Desha. Rounding out the molecular diagnostics team are section supervisor Dawn Dirks and three student workers. 

“Some of the testing that we do is for companion animals, some of it is for livestock and some is wildlife,” said Dirks. Specimens for testing typically come in as blood, pieces of tissue or fecal material. These specimens are then logged into the computer. “Then we'll do an extraction. So, we're looking for the nucleic acids. Some of the targets that we identify are RNA and some are DNA,” Dirks said. “Typically, we'll do a total nucleic acid extraction, and then we will do an amplification on another piece of instrument that uses fluorescent dyes to detect whether or not the specific target is there.” If the target is there, the specimen is reported as detected. If it’s not, then it’s reported as not detected. 

These specimens come into the molecular diagnostics section from all over. “My favorite thing about working in the molecular department is not only being able to work with the college’s Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital and private clients, but also with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Agriculture and other larger organizations and being a part of testing that not only affects animal agriculture but public health as well,” Desha said. “Most of our testing is for zoonotic diseases and ruling out diseases that can affect the general public!” 

This crossover between animal and human health is known as One Health, and the molecular diagnostics section (as well as the OVDL as a whole) plays a huge part in the wellbeing of those living in the state and the region – animals and humans alike. During the first critical years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the molecular diagnostics section processed more than 300,000 human COVID-19 specimens along with all the regular animal specimens. 

This past year, the biggest caseload has been from highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu. “We've been doing a lot of surveillance testing for wild birds for avian influenza. And that of course is important because it helps track where the virus is moving,” Dirks said. “We know the wild birds are carrying it back and forth, and then that impacts domestic birds as food sources and all sorts of aspects that relate to human need.” Just a bird dropping from an actively infected wild bird flying over a domestic flock can cause the virus to spread to the flock, necessitating the eradication of all the birds in the flock. 

Catching things like this early is extremely important to mitigating the damage. Typically, the molecular diagnostics section turns high-risk specimens like bird flu around in 24 hours, with some taking 48 hours. The knowledge of whether something is detected or not detected can then help inform the decisions of folks all across the spectrum, from a pet owner all the way up to public health officials like the Oregon Department of Agriculture State Veterinarian Dr. Ryan Scholz on the animal side or Dr. Emilio DeBess, public health veterinarian at the Oregon Health Authority, on the human side. “We help provide practical and needed answers to questions about our clients’ animals’ health,” Hunkapiller said. “Be that companions/pets, livestock or herd animals, or for human stewards of wildlife health (state and federal agencies and wildlife rehab).”

Additionally, the knowledge gathered here in Corvallis, can also flow across the country through the National Animal Health Laboratory Network of which the OVDL is a part. This nationwide network of more than 60 federal, state and university laboratories is the country’s frontline response in One Health efforts from the animal side. Putting the pieces together from across the country can help scientists get a more holistic picture of what’s happening. “There's lots of sending specimens back and forth and sending emails with documentation back and forth of what we have found,” Dirks said. “And for avian influenza, they've been doing a lot of sequencing to try to really track how the virus is mutating over time. That's been really interesting to watch and see the differences.” 

This work also helps inform public health and economic decisions on a very practical level. “We get specimens not only from Oregon but sometimes from surrounding states,” Dirks said. “It's this idea of tracking some of these really important infectious agents that either may be zoonotic or could have a potentially significant detrimental impact on food supply import and export. We're talking about a pretty big economic potential impact as well.”

Hunkapiller, Lawler, Desha, Dirks and the three student staff, keep churning through the specimens. Every single one of the 10,000, an individual case with an individual answer, but with potentially big implications for huge populations of animals and people. “There's a very small group of people here doing a lot of work that is really important,” Dirks said. “The team here is great and works really well together.”