Very Viral
Written by Ava   

There's Abbie, the graduate student that's studying the molecular and biochemical evolution of HIV and epigenetic control of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs). Then there's Abbie, the animal rescuer and pet owner who owns a dog named after a famous bodybuilder actor and who's family is known for rescuing stray pups.  

We got the chance to talk to Abbie about her work with animals and the viruses that could harm them, her devotion to rescuing dogs, her love for her dog Arnie, and of course, the blog that wraps all of that up in one pretty package.  

Why do you choose to study the evolution of viruses and how it impacts our health?

Honestly?  When I was little I wanted to be an astronaut.  I wanted to seek out new life and new civilizations like they did on Star Trek.  But real life doesnt really work that way, ha!  So I decided to study aliens right here on Planet Earth--Viruses.  Theyre weird little buggars, but theyve played a massive role in the evolution of life on this planet, including humans.  And viruses are absolutely everywhere.  They make up the largest biomass on this planet.  If aliens visited Earth, viruses would be the first thing they would notice.

What I love about studying viral evolution, is how fast everything is!  You can watch populations evolve, via mutation, genetic drift, population bottlenecks, selection... right in front of your eyes!  People who study giraffes cant do that.  It is SO COOL.

Would  you use animals in your studies? In other words, can animals tell us anything about the evolution of viruses and how they impact humans? How?

One of the many difficulties with HIV-1 research is that we dont have any good small animal models.  Heck, we dont even have good non-human primate models-- We didnt know until literally, last week, that chimpanzees could develop an AIDS-like illness after being infected with the chimpanzee version of HIV, SIV.

Lots of HIV-1 researchers have figured out ways to use animals, but all of my research, personally, is done in tissue culture.  This means that we need to be extremely careful with how we interpret our data-- just because HIV-1 might behave a certain way in tissue culture, doesnt mean it behaves that way in humans.  However, we can always compare our findings with HIV-1 found in 'nature'-- sequences other scientists have isolated from real patients and real transmission events.

But just because we dont have an animal model doesnt mean animals arent useful for HIV-1 research.  For example, most African non-human primates have their own 'versions' of SIV.  They have been co-evolving with one another for millions of years.  SIV has been selecting primates that can survive infection (at least until reproductive age).  Primates have been selecting SIV for less pathogenic strains (if you kill your host before youre transmitted, youre a dead virus).  We can study how other primates have adapted to SIV (and SIV to the primates) to identify new antiretroviral drug targets!  The only interaction we need to have with primates to do this is to collect their poop in the wild.  This probably isnt the kind of 'animal model' most people think of when they think of how animals might be useful for medical research :)

But traditional animal models, like a regular white mouse, are relatively unhelpful for studying HIV-1.  However mice are useful for studying other retroviruses-- endogenous retroviruses (ERVs).  Most people are surprised to hear that about 8% of your genome is viral!  Leftover bits and pieces of retroviruses that have accidentally become permanent residents of our genomes over the course of human evolution.  A strong majority of these leftover bits are junk, thank goodness!  We dont want all of our cells to randomly start producing viruses!  But a few of the bits can still produce proteins.  This wayward ERV activation has been associated with numerous diseases, from cancer to multiple sclerosis.  Studying how ERVs behave in mice, under various conditions, can help us understand how they might be behaving in humans, thus providing us with ideas for novel therapies.

Do you have any pets?

Yup!  A 3-year old pit bull named Arnold Schwarzenegger!  I found him during an ice storm when he was a puppy.  Adopting him was one of the best decisions Ive ever made!

What is your involvement with animals in day to day life (work, home, etc.)

I consider pet ownership a full-time hobby.  When Im not at work (or blogging), Im playing with Arnie.  Its really a matter of practicality-- If he gets bored, he eats futons.  I cant afford to buy a new futon every other week on a students stipend.  Ha!

You say that people confuse local Human Society shelters with The Humane Society of the United States.  What are the differences?

Most people dont know that there is no connection between the local Humane Society shelters we all know and love, and The Humane Society of the United States.  I know I didnt until journalists starting reporting on how great Michael Vicks pits were doing last year... but quoting some awful remarks from the president of 'the Humane Society' and 'the Humane Society' dog fighting 'expert'.  Wayne Pacelle and JP Goodwin made it perfectly clear that all of Michael Vicks dogs should be killed.

John Goodwin, a dogfighting expert with the Humane Society and a proponent of euthanizing fight dogs, is skeptical of the emerging reports of the Vick dog recoveries. Fighting is in their blood, he said. Retrievers retrieve. Shepherds herd. And fighting pit bulls fight. "The behavior is bred into them," he said. "These groups are not rehabilitating these dogs. They're training them to behave in a more socialized manner. But these pit bulls should never be left alone with other dogs, because you never know when that instinct to fight another dog is going to surface."
I knew this was PETAs stance, but I have never encountered this idiotic attitude from people at local shelters.  No Humane Society shelter has turned away a stray pit Ive brought in.  They always give them a chance.  Why were 'higher ups' in 'the Humane Society' being so heartless?

Stranger still, the ASPCA and pit rescue groups (ie BadRap) were in control of Vicks dogs after the bust... and yet, HSUS was running fundraising ads like this one, begging for money 'for the care of Michael Vicks pits'.  HSUS had nothing to do with the care of these dogs, and in fact, wanted them killed.

What was going on here?

To an Average Jane dog lover like myself, it appears HSUS is just a money racket, capitalizing on the good name local Humane Society shelters have earned.  Trying to cash in on the torture of these pups.  If you are a dog lover, donate to your local private and city shelters.  Money, old blankets and towels, dog food you got on sale with a sweet coupon, your time-- If you are donating money by mail, make sure there is a real shelter somewhere you can physically visit.  Not just an office building or PO Box.

Do you feel that animals are smarter then humans give them credit for?

I certainly think they are more clever than some people might give them credit for.  Arnie is a problem solver... which turns him into a problem maker, sometimes.  You leave a box of milk bones on the fireplace mantle, that boy is going to figure out how to get them...

You've mentioned rescuing a pit bull off the street? What was that like and have you rescued other animals?

Initially it was very scary.  Like everyone else, I had heard awful stories about how mean pits are, yet here this pup was in front of me, the sweetest dog Id ever met.  So I watched every season of 'The Dog Whisperer'.  lol!  I knew his 'go-to' dog was a pit, so I figured he would have some good advice.  I made sure Arnie was socialized-- letting him meet and interact with lots of different breeds of dogs, and lots of different people.  I also made sure he got TONS of exercise.  We walk/run several miles every morning and every evening.  A well exercised dog is a well behaved dog.  And, I enrolled him in obedience classes.  Those were actually very difficult, as Arnie just wanted to go play with the other dogs and the children running around, NOT learn how to sit/stay.  Hes turned out to be a rather obnoxiously social dog, lol!  But I can get him to do all kinds of tricks when its just me and him!

Though Arnie is the first pit I've adopted, he isn't the first dog Ive rescued-- My family kinda has a habit of taking in stray pups, and either keeping them ourselves, or finding them new homes with friends.  I really can't wrap my head around people breeding/buying dogs.

Tell me about your blog ERV and some of the animal posts included in the blog.

ERV is shorthand for 'endogenous retrovirus'.  When I first started in 2006, I noticed there was an open niche for virology in the blogging world, and tried to fill it!  Viruses are just so weird, so alien to most people-- I try to write about them and the very serious diseases they cause, in a lighthearted, non-intimidating way.

Animal posts usually center around Arnie and pit bulls, but I also write about viruses that infect non-human animals-- reptiles, chickens, mice, sheep, lemurs...

What is your opinion on animal shelter euthanasia?

I wish there were ways to avoid it.  Its such a waste.  At least when we use animals in research, there is some good coming from their deaths.  But animals that get put down in shelters?  Nothing.  And how many of those deaths could have been avoided with responsible pet ownership?  Basic pet responsibilities, like getting animals fixed.  Veterinarians are great about cutting people deals if they dont think they can afford it--there is no excuse.  Basic pet responsibilities, like training and exercising your dog.  Dogs arent Nintendo Wiis you can pick up/put down whenever youre bored.  Theyre social creatures that require a lot of attention.  If you cant provide them with the exercise and attention they deserve, then dont get one, and dont blame the dog for its bad behavior.  If theres anything Ive learned from adopting a pit, is that there are no bad dogs.  Just bad owners.  Dont be a bad owner, and you will be contributing to stopping animal shelter euthanasia.

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