Newly funded: University of Minnesota researchers secure $500K USDA grant to study novel pig influenzas

March 28, 2022

A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota has secured $500,000 to study how new influenza virus strains emerge, persist, and spread in pig populations—and what age, well-being, farm-production type, and epidemiological factors might help predict whether a new virus strain emerges. 

Though most pigs recover from influenza, the virus affects pork producers financially because infected pigs take longer to gain weight—meaning more time on the farm prior to market. The most common cause of new infectious strains in both pigs and people is something called viral gene reassortment, which occurs when two different influenza viruses infect the same cell and then swap gene segments.  

Now, scientists in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, led by principal investigator Montserrat Torremorell, DVM, PhD, will try to prove their hypothesis: that influenza reassortment is common, and that it’s driven by factors like age, immunity, and production system. To do this, they’ll take samples from pigs aged either 8 or 16 weeks from farms known to have two distinct Influenza A strains in circulation.  

RELATED: Newly funded: Mitigating influenza transmission between pigs and people

They’ll first characterize the virus strains in individual farms and pigs, and then they’ll look at whether certain populations of pigs, namely young populations lacking protective immunity, are responsible for the gene reassortment that leads to new infectious strains. The researchers then hope to quantify the extent of reassortment that occurs. 

The work could lead to new management practices and vaccine protocols. The ultimate goal, the researchers say, is to improve influenza control and prevent new strains from emerging in pig populations—leading to less of a financial burden for producers and a decreased risk of transmission to people. 

The funding, which began in March and lasts through February of 2025, was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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A presumed mother pig nuzzles a young pig's head with her snout.
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Photo by Stefanie Poepken on Unsplash
New funding from the USDA will allow University of Minnesota researchers to investigate swine influenza virus reassortment in an effort to understand what causes new strains.