The Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1839, recounted the global, five-year scientific expedition of HMS Beagle, during which Charles Darwin famously spent five weeks in the Galápagos.
Amid his observations and collections, Darwin noted that mockingbirds, finches and tortoises differed from island to island. These facts contributed to the development of his groundbreaking theory of evolution by natural selection, presented in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.
Throughout history, humans have been captivated and fascinated by the radical, big-picture theories that stake a signpost in the infinite wonder of existence.
The true nature of scientific advancement, however, is grounded in the tiny steps of evidence-based research. Researchers use a method of inquiry based on systematic observation and measurable evidence, subject to specific principles of reasoning. From that platform, they formulate, test, and modify their hypotheses. That is how reality ultimately receives a jolt.
It was in the interest of fundamental, boots-on-the-ground science that a team of Missouri scientists and veterinarians dispatched to the Galápagos in October 2016.
“The ABG (Agencia de Regulación y Control de la Bioseguridad y Cuarentena para Galápagos, or Agency for Biosafety and Quarantine Regulation and Control for the Galápagos) is interested in developing diagnostic testing capacity for livestock at their facility there on the island,” said John Middleton, a professor of food animal medicine and surgery at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). “When they send test samples off the island, the time lag in getting results is significant. In one instance, it took a month to get diagnostic results back from the mainland. For timely response to a problem, that doesn’t work out very well.”
The visit was conceived based on a conversation with Patricia Parker, PhD, at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Parker, an evolutionary biologist and endowed professor in zoological studies, is a notable Galápagos investigator. Her avian research in the Galápagos has resulted in nearly 100 scientific papers and 15 book chapters. Parker also serves as senior scientist at the St. Louis Zoo.
“Dr. Parker has been conducting research in the Galápagos for years,” Middleton says. “She is a friend of Dr. Marilyn Cruz, executive director of the ABG. Some work they had been doing on disease surveillance in their cattle population led Dr. Cruz to ask Dr. Parker if she knew somebody in the U.S., possibly affiliated with the university, who could help with these livestock diseases.”The Galápagos archipelago consists of 16 islands with a population of 20,000 people and 30,000 cattle. The islands have prohibited the importation of livestock since 1989, so the health of native livestock herds is essential. The humans are citizens of Ecuador; the cattle tend to be Brown Swiss, Holsteins, and Jerseys.
“So, there were actually two aspects to our visit: to have our team work with their diagnostic lab to look at how they can improve diagnostic testing capacity, and to understand the livestock population and how the livestock are managed,” according to Middleton.
Middleton, DVM, PhD, DACVIM; Michael Zhang, associate clinical professor of biomedical sciences and leader of the serology section of the Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (VMDL); and Abel Vega, MS, a research specialist in the avian section of the VMDL, made up the Mizzou contingent to the island of Santa Cruz in the Galápagos.
Parker’s PhD candidate, Samoa Asigau, represented the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Asigau was making her fourth trip to the Galápagos.
“Really, what we are trying to do is optimize their testing capacity so that they can get a better turnaround on tests,” Middleton explained. “In order to understand how you test for disease, you have to understand how diseases are potentially transmitted, which is why you go out and look at the population and see how farms are managed. It brings the hands-on approach and the laboratory approach together.”
The natural division of labor found Middleton working mainly in the field, while the remainder of the team primarily utilized their expertise in the lab.
“When we first got there, we bled some cows so we had some samples to work with, then we brought those back to the lab,” Middleton said. “While Mike, Samoa and Abel were working in the lab, I’d continue to go out and do various farm visits and go to their slaughter facilities. That was really my role: to interact between what goes on in the lab — which is Mike, Abel and Samoa — versus what actually happens on the farm, and then come together as a group to understand the best methods for ABG to diagnose and control disease on the islands.”
Abel Vega filled several roles for the team. A native of Bolivia, he speaks Spanish fluently.
“Dr. Parker didn’t have anyone available at the time who was a fluent Spanish speaker,” Middleton says. “Dr. Shuping Zhang, director of the VMDL, graciously offered that we could take Abel with us as an interpreter. Abel has first-hand experience working in the diagnostic lab, so he was a great asset to the team. He could interpret language for us, but he also knows how the diagnostic lab works. That was critical since we were trying to develop diagnostic capacity. As a native of South America, he could provide cultural context as well. He helped us on multiple fronts that week.”
The two diseases the team specifically focused on were infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD).
IBR is a respiratory disease of cattle caused by bovine herpesvirus 1. It is characterized by acute inflammation of the upper respiratory tract. Disease outbreaks can result in severe production losses, abortion and mortality, so a BoHV-1 infection can cause significant economic losses to cattle producers.
BVD can cause a number of different disease manifestations from inapparent persistent infection to fulminant enteritis and thus has a significant impact on animal health and the farm economy.
“They’ve been trying to develop PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing capacity for those two diseases,” Middleton said. “Dr. Michael Zhang really helped them try to develop those assays further. Since we have come back, he has sent control strain DNA for IBR and BVD back to the ABG for them to use in assay development.”
“Really, this first trip was an exploratory visit to gain an understanding of what we were dealing with so we can provide more informative advice,” Middleton said. “Our real hope is that we can bring a team from the Galápagos to Missouri and introduce them to what we do here. We would like to bring their veterinarian and show him how livestock operations work in the United States, not necessarily to say, ‘This is the way it should be done,’ but just, ‘This is our approach.’ Then, at the very least, we have a framework moving forward by which he understands our perspective, and we understand his perspective. Maybe we can improve things on farming operations. Maybe we can help there.”
The hope and the help came to fruition in March. A team of five Ecuadorian scientists and veterinarians left their sunny, equatorial clime to visit cold, snowy Missouri. The group spent several days on the UMSL campus with Parker and Asigau, and then braved I-70 to Columbia.
Patricia Mendoza Becerra, one of Parker’s UMSL PhD candidates and a native of Peru, introduced the ABG team at an informal meeting at the CVM’s VMDL:
- Alberto Vélez, “He is the team leader for the Galápagos laboratory. He has a biology degree and a master’s degree in biotechnology with a focus on molecular techniques. His professional experience has been mostly doing molecular diagnostics.”
- Rita Criollo, “She is a small animal veterinarian, so she’s been working in small animal medicine over at the VHC, in addition to working here (in the VMDL). Back in the Galápagos, she also works outreach with the population about nutrition, disease control and health care of animals, in addition to her duties as a small-animal vet.”
- Fabricio Vásquez, “He is a veterinarian with a lot of experience out in the fields, with chemical diagnostics as well as husbandry and management techniques for cattle and other large animals. He will mainly be out at the farms working with cattle.”
- Paulina Castillo, “She has a degree in chemical analysis. She’s been working in the laboratory on pharmacological and microbiological aspects, and also in molecular biology.”
- Erika Guerrero Vásquez, “She’s a biologist who has been working mostly with entomology identification, to see if the insects, arachnids and any other arthropods that are coming into the Galápagos can be introduced and if they can carry any diseases.”
“We are very happy with our takeaway from this week,” Vélez said, with Mendoza serving as his interpreter. “Our visit to the Columbia facilities have two main purposes. One has been to get to know the place and its infrastructure. In the future, that is going to be very helpful for the improvement of the buildings we have back in the Galápagos.
“The second part is to get to know the people who work here on all the different assays that they are running,” Vélez continued. “That part has been a very pleasant surprise for us. What a great resource all the people have been! Everyone we have met has been so helpful and so patient with explanations to our questions. That has probably been the most important part of our visit to Columbia. So many nice people showing such hospitality in allowing us to come here to learn and teaching us as much as they can. We are so happy that people here have been so open. This has been one of the best educational experiences we have ever had.”