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ZIMS at Work: University of Chicago researchers access data essential to immunology studies

In light of the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19, a bat-borne zoonosis, the importance of this work cannot be understated. I am grateful for ZIMS for providing the data we need to undertake these fundamental research questions.

University of Chicago researcher and Assistant Professor, Dr. Cara Brook
(Photo: Adobe Stock Images)

We are pleased to announce that the University of Chicago’s Department of Ecology and Evolution has joined the Species360 Research Partner Program. As a research partner, the University will access data aggregated in the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), the world’s largest database on more than 22,000 species in human care.

Department researchers will use ZIMS data to study immunology in species of mammals. In particular, they will look at baseline neutrophil concentrations published in ZIMS to summarize order-level parameter values that approximate the magnitude of constitutive immunity across diverse mammalian taxa. They will use these values to explore the impacts of different reservoir host immunology on the evolution of virus traits known to generate virulence following cross-species spillover.

“This work provides a much-needed mechanistic explanation for the virulence of bat-borne zoonoses,” said University of Chicago researcher and Assistant Professor, Dr. Cara Brook. “In light of the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19, a bat-borne zoonosis, the importance of this work cannot be understated. I am grateful for ZIMS for providing the data we need to undertake these fundamental research questions.”

Animal data in ZIMS is recorded and shared by more than 1,200 Species360 member institutions including zoos, aquariums, wildlife centers, and conservation agencies worldwide. By aggregating and analyzing data values, ZIMS provides a unique, essential resource for improving our understanding of species.

“By collecting information about the extent of constitutive immune processes across the Tree of Life more broadly, we are able to generalize our model to predict the virulence of emerging viral zoonoses in the future,” said Dr. Brook.

The lesser horseshoe bat is a small European and North African insectivorous bat. (Source: Adobe Stock Images)

To my knowledge, ZIMS is the only multi-taxa repository globally that congregates immunological trait data across such a wide range of taxa. These analyses would not be possible without such a fantastic resource.

University of Chicago researcher and Assistant Professor, Dr. Cara Brook

Dr. Brook noted that this research is inspired by her group’s recent findings that bats host zoonotic viruses that cause higher case fatality rates in humans than those derived from all other mammals.

“We hypothesize that unique features of bat immunology—in particular, highly robust constitutive immune responses and high tolerance of inflammation—enable bats to host viruses that would be otherwise pathological in most mammals without, themselves, experiencing significant disease,” said Dr. Brook.

Because of bats’ unique viral tolerance, viruses evolving in bat immune systems are selected to develop traits, such as high growth rates, that—while avirulent to bats—cause extreme pathology in mammals lacking unique bat defenses, resulting in the high virulence of bat viruses following cross-species spillover.

“The zoo and aquarium community worldwide contributes data that is essential to sustaining the welfare and conservation of species,” said Jim Guenter, CEO, Species360. “By aggregating and analyzing that data, we are pleased to deliver insights that fuel world class research like the immunology studies at the University of Chicago.”

Species360 is a global non-profit that facilitates international collaboration in the collection and sharing of knowledge to improve animal welfare and inform species conservation.

Learn more about the Species360 Research Partner Program here.

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