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Heard on Campus: Martha Nelson on the SARS-CoV-2 virus in deer

Alumna and NIH scientist uses genomics to track evolution and transmission of the virus among deer and human
5 June 2023
Martha Nelson gestures while at podium
Alumna Martha Nelson speaks at the 2023 EEID conference held at Penn State. Credit: Michelle Bixby

“There don’t appear to be evolutionary adaptations required for human SARS-CoV-2 virus to transmit in deer so far,” said Eberly College of Science alumna Martha Nelson, reflecting on her past two years of work as a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She discussed how the same variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus found in humans can also be found in deer during a high-level 15-minute presentation at a recent conference. Nelson’s work supports previous Penn State researchers’ findings that SARS-CoV-2 can circulate in deer.

Nelson presented her work in a talk titled “Using genomic data to track SARS-CoV-2 transmission in white-tailed deer,” on May 24 at the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease (EEID) conference, hosted by the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State. Nelson, also an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University, earned her doctoral degree in biology at Penn State in 2008.

“SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly evolving in deer — and differently [than in humans] — but this early phase could be transient,” said Nelson, explaining that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted from humans to deer and that “older SARS-CoV-2 variants (e.g., alpha) that die off in human [populations] can be sustained in deer [populations].” Continued monitoring of the white-tailed deer population is important because these two factors could mean that the virus could evolve new variants in deer that are then transmitted back to humans and that variants like alpha could reemerge.

While at Penn State, Nelson studied the genomic evolution of the influenza A virus. At NIH, Nelson studies the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, influenza A virus, and other emergent diseases. She uses genomics to track the transmission and evolution of emergent diseases and considers how pathogens invade new habitats and host species.

“[At EEID] we hope to reflect on the journey of the last two decades and think toward our ambitions for the next 20 years,” said Matt Ferrari, professor of biology and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the EEID conference was first held at Penn State in 2003 and since then has been a place to “build a community to identify and tackle the most exciting and most important questions in disease ecology and evolution,” Ferrari added. 

Media Contacts
Heather Robbins
Director of Communications in the Eberly College of Science