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For Some Scientists, Shutdown Is Not An Option During The COVID-19 Pandemic

SPECIAL SERIES: COVID-19 In Arizona: 6 Months In

The coronavirus shutdown has required everyone to be a bit more flexible.

But nature's necessities — birth, feeding, reproduction and death — remain obstinate, requiring scientists and staff who work with living things to remain at their posts.

Evolutionary biologist Luciano Matzkin has learned to enjoy the little things.

"The lab always smells like wonderful banana bread," Matzkin said.

Fruits And Flies

That tropical aroma arises from the goo in which Matzkin raises hundreds of stocks of cactophilic drosophila. The small fruit flies eat, mate, lay eggs and raise larvae in rotting cactus. When supplies runs low, his University of Arizona lab whips together some yeast, corn syrup, molasses and banana.

To human palates, that might sound like an improvement, but not so the drosophila.

"They live their whole lives associated with the necrosis, or rotten tissues, of a number of different cactus species," said Matzkin.

Fruit flies are a research mainstay, and have contributed to several Nobel Prize-winning discoveries, from chromosomes to circadian rhythms.

The insects offer several advantages: Researchers can easily handle them, anesthetize them and tell the males from the females — which is a good thing, because they also breed readily.

Perhaps most importantly for developmental and evolutionary biologists, fruit flies mutate frequently and mature quickly. The common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster can fully mature in as little as 10 days.

Matzkin's cactus-loving fruit flies, which dwell in the dry regions of Mexico and the southwestern U.S., take about twice that long.

Still, the benefits of fast development come at a cost: bleary eyes, especially during experiments.

"It's not uncommon to have somebody in the lab 24 hours a day for three, four days in a row," Matzkin said. 

Brian Smith of the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences studies learning and memory in drosophila as well as honeybees and moths.

"They have smaller nervous systems that are much, much more accessible to get in and do physiological recordings of what's going on," he said.

Smith tries to understand how animals detect odors, represent them in the brain and later recall, differentiate and act on them. That requires working with creatures with simpler brains that are still capable of learning. Smith says honeybees fit the bill.

"I can take somebody in my laboratory and within half an hour they can be training bees and use the same principle to train their dogs at home," he said.

Smith said working with insect brains to understand human ones is like taking apart a pocket calculator to better understand a supercomputer.

"Maybe the supercomputer does it very differently, but at least I have a hypothesis — something to look for," Smith said.

Those creeping, crawling and flying calculators require careful attention, both to maintain research validity and to address practical concerns. For example, staff at ASU's Polytechnic Campus must manage when honeybee queens establish new colonies and ensure Africanized honeybees don't move in and take them over.

But Smith says he also cares about their welfare.

"We don't have to use the same protocols for animal care as the people who work on mammals do, but we all still care about our animals," Smith said.

Ticks And Transmissibility

While Smith tries to see what makes living things tick, Monica Embers at Tulane University in New Orleans keeps ticks living.

"We're probably the one place in the world where we don't want our ticks to die," she said.

Embers researches treatments and diagnostics for Lyme disease. Antibiotics, the typical approach, don't always work, and a vaccine has not been available since 2002, when the manufacturer discontinued production for commercial reasons.

Embers's research requires maintaining colonies of the disease-causing bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, along with the ticks that transmit it.

As with fruit fly stocks, mold poses one of the chief threats to tick colonies. Embers and her staff must guard against the fungus while also feeding the ticks on live animals at every developmental phase. The parasitic arachnids typically infect humans during the pre-adult nymph stage.

When the COVID-19 closures kicked in, many institutions paused their research. But Embers was deep in a study she could not shut down.

For now, she cannot start new research projects.

Moreover, Embers and other researchers are finding it difficult to come by the nonhuman primates they need for testing, such as rhesus macaques.

"They're very, very valuable for that purpose because they generate a response to both the tick bite and the pathogen, much like humans do," said Embers.

A substantial percentage of the Old World monkeys, which are widely used in science, are being diverted toward coronavirus research. Embers has only half the number she needs, but says she and her fellow scientists recognize the need for flexibility.

"Yes, we have to keep our research going. But I also understand that we need to focus on finding a vaccine for COVID and treatments for COVID," said Embers.

The nonhuman primates she does have access to still require care — not only regular feeding and checkups, but enrichment activities, too — come rain or come shine.

"Even, you know, when there's a threat of a hurricane, which we just dealt with a couple of times already this year," she said.

In late August, hurricane Laura struck Louisiana, knocking out power and water for tens of thousands and leaving at least six dead.

Undergrads And Uncertainty

Meanwhile, Embers and her human-primate colleagues must care for children when schools are closed, work from home when possible — stagger shifts when not — and cope with the uncertainty facing grad students and postdocs as they struggle to finish projects and find jobs.

Such worries were a common refrain among the researchers interviewed.

"I worry a lot about my staff. I have two postdocs, and they're towards the end of their period with me. And I worry that this fall, right now, are there going to be academic jobs for them?" said Matzkin.

Smith agreed.

"You really have to think about them and figure out ways for them to move forward," Smith said.

Nor do grad students and postdocs hold a monopoly on research posts. Matzkin, whose research partly relies on undergraduate lab assistants, has continued some studies but had to shut down or delay others.

"It's not uncommon to have half a dozen or more undergrads in the lab during a regular semester. Once we had to shut down the university, all our undergraduates had to go home."

Though he says he knows it's for a good reason, Matzkin, who began his research career as an undergraduate, worries about how lost lab time will affect their futures.

Grants And Gate Receipts

After all, research builds on research — just as funding builds on funding.

"In order to get more funding for more research, you have to get the research done, and you have to show that you've made progress," said Embers.

That fiscal insecurity deepens when it's tied to gate receipts and donations.

Gary West is vice president of animal health and living collections at the Phoenix Zoo, which recently reopened to the public.

"We do have some staff that don't have direct animal care responsibilities that have been furloughed or hours reduced. But we haven't really reduced hours of our animal care staff," West said.

Those staff members must meet the basic needs of more than 3,000 animals from around 400 species.

"They may need vaccinations. They may need examinations. They may need dental care. And of course they need food, water, a clean environment to live in, behavioral enrichment, exercise needs — all of that," said West.

Like Embers, West too must ensure his susceptible primates avoid exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

But the zoo, and its Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Conservation Center, cares for other animals that coronavirus might also infect. Tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for COVID-19 in April.

"We have to be conscious of those species' susceptibilities. And in those areas, we take a little bit more enhanced precautions," said West.

The staff also closely monitors bats and anteaters, which might also be vulnerable to infection. And because endangered black-footed ferrets can catch cold – another coronavirus – conservation staff must maximize distancing and prepare for isolation if needed.

"Luckily so far we haven't seen any suspicious cases of respiratory disease in any of our animal collection," said West.

The conservation center also houses, breeds and conserves threatened species like the Chiricahua leopard frog and endangered species like the desert pupfish and Mount Graham red squirrels.

Not having visitors has meant fewer potential disease vectors. But it also ran counter to the zoo's mission — and meant less revenue for funding conservation work locally and globally. Even now, travel restrictions and social distancing impede site visits, animal releases and data gathering.

West himself has for the last three years worked with the endangered Chacoan peccary and lowland tapirs in Paraguay's Gran Chaco.

"It really bothers us and worries us. And I hope we can recover quickly from all of that, but I really worry about a lot of our wild places in the world," West said.

Stewardship And The Surreal

Many people cope with the present unpleasantness by sharing images of a natural world seemingly thriving during the pandemic: cleaner skies, pregnant pandas and lions lazing on an abandoned road.

But wild places need stewards, too. And living creatures, whether in conservation centers or coronavirus labs, need dedicated scientists and staff to care for them.

Ruth Allard, vice president for conservation and science for the conservation center, says it's typical for zoo staff to pitch in where needed, whether that means clearing debris after a storm or checking in on an ailing critter before heading home.

Still, this whole coronavirus chapter has felt a bit surreal.

"Part of me that floats outside the reality of it, watches and thinks, 'Oh, this is going to be a really interesting case study someday.' And then part of is like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm really tired. I'm done being in unusual times.'"

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.