NAU evolutionary biologist uses bioinformatics to fight mosquito-borne pathogens in the Southwest

Crystal Hepp

Illnesses from mosquito bites have tripled in the United States since 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Northern Arizona University evolutionary biologist Crystal Hepp is on the front lines of fighting mosquito-borne pathogens in the region. She recently received a New Investigator Award grant—$75,000 per year for three years—from the Arizona Biomedical Research Centre (ABRC), a unit of the Arizona Department of Health Services, for a project to investigate the circulation and source locations of West Nile virus in the state.

West Nile virus is the most common mosquito-borne disease in Arizona. Although only 20 percent of people infected with the virus experience symptoms similar to those of the flu, one in 150 infected people develops a serious, sometimes fatal, illness such as encephalitis and meningitis. In 2017, West Nile virus caused six deaths in Arizona.

Another mosquito-borne illness, St. Louis encephalitis virus (SLEV), is very rare in Arizona and throughout the United States, but public health professionals know it’s still circulating in some mosquito populations, posing a potential threat. Through work on a related project, Hepp’s goal is to better understand the diversity, circulation and source locations of SLEV in the American Southwest. Graduate student Chase Ridenour is funded to work on this project through a training grant awarded to Hepp by the Pacific Southwest Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases.

Collaborating on projects with colleagues from SICCS, PMI and TGen
Hepp, assistant professor with NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems (SICCS) and an affiliate researcher with NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI), will collaborate with SICCS assistant professor Viacheslav Fofanov, Regents’ professor and PMI executive director Paul Keim and David Engelthaler from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) on both projects. She also will work with the staff of the Maricopa County Vector Control Division.

“I work with vector control agencies in Arizona and other states that trap mosquitoes and contribute mosquito pools that have tested positive for West Nile Virus and St. Louis encephalitis to my lab group,” Hepp said. “Undergraduate and graduate students, and the research specialist senior in my lab, process the samples at PMI and TGen. The samples are then sequenced, and we incorporate the resulting genomic data with geographic and temporal data to better understand viral circulation over time and space.”

Hepp uses bioinformatics—computational tools—to acquire, store and analyze biological data including medical, behavioral, associated environmental and health data.

“We are trying to identify locations in the western United States where these viruses are really well-established and whether they are emerging from those same locations every year,” Hepp said. “If that’s the case, those areas could be targeted for proactive intervention efforts.”

Hepp’s research focuses on pathogen genomics, and her interests include metagenomic analysis, molecular evolution and epidemiology of biomedically relevant bacteria and viruses. In addition, her group works with investigators in the health sciences to better understand infectious disease-related health disparities. Hepp was recently awarded an Investigator Development Grant through NAU’s Southwest Health Equity Research Center (SHERC) for a pilot project to study infants with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) and their mothers, collaborating with NAU medical anthropologist Emery Eaves.

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