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KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee researcher has received a federal grant to study the relationship between the rabies virus in bats and environmental stress.

Dr. Gary McCracken

Dr. Gary McCracken, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been awarded $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation for the three-year study.

McCracken is an international authority on bats and their interactions with the environment. He has studied the natural population, genetics, ecology and behavior of bats for 25 years.

With the NSF grant, he will study Brazilian free-tailed bats and big brown bats, two species of the flying mammals that occur frequently in the United States.

The research will have five parts:

— studies of the population ecology and genetics of two common species of bats in natural and man-altered habitats;

— surveillance for rabies exposure and infection in these wild populations;

— investigation of the effects of immune system stress resulting from habitat change on the ability of bats to resist disease infection;

— laboratory experiments to connect the effects of stress on the immune system of bats and their susceptibility to rabies under controlled conditions; and

— mathematical modeling to integrate the data from the field studies and laboratory experiments.

McCracken says he hopes to discover whether environmental stressors have a correlation to tendencies for bats to be the main source of human rabies.

“Within the last 40 years, bats have become the primary reservoir for human rabies infections in the U.S.,” McCracken said.

“These same years have witnessed the emergence of numerous infectious diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, West Nile Virus, and hantaviruses that are major threats to human health,” he said. “Man’s alteration of environments and changes in the relationships between the diseases and the animals they infect are implicated in the emergence of these diseases.”

McCracken says the study should provide a better understanding of rabies and will address issues common to the ecology of many diseases that affect wildlife and man.

He will collaborate with colleagues at UT, Boston University, and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

McCracken has been at UT since 1979. He received the Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University and did post doctoral research at the University of California at San Diego and the University of Rochester.

He received the bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame University.