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Divya Ventakesh

BBSRC Discovery Fellow

I am interested in exploring viral and host determinants of species specificity and susceptibility in infectious disease.

I focus on Influenza A virus, for which wild waterfowl constitute the main reservoir, but which also spills over into several mammalian species, sometimes causing devastating outbreaks or pandemics. In my previous work, I studied cross-species transmission dynamics and antigenic evolution of this virus in wild birds and livestock. As a BBSRC Discovery Fellow, I will study its evolution and pathogenicity in marine mammals – specifically two closely-related species of pinnipeds: grey and harbour seals – which happen to exhibit dramatically distinct outcomes due to viral infections. In grey seals, the disease if any, remains subclinical, but harbour seals develop visible disease and suffer mass mortality events.

The idea is to use the avian-seal interface as a kind of “natural experiment” to study how avian influenza adapts to mammals, and the mechanisms underpinning the varying levels of host susceptibility to disease. This research can help us anticipate and respond to wildlife disease outbreaks and potentially, future pandemics.