Meet Peris Ambala, Molecular Virologist and Mawazo Scholar

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Applying Molecular Genetics to Study Zoonotic Viruses in Kenya 

By Peris Ambala

Mawazo Scholar Peris Ambala authored the following blog post on her research as part of the global DNA Day celebrations. Learn more about DNA Day and the ‘15 for 15’ Celebration here

As a Ph.D. scholar and a young female scientist at the Institute of Primate Research Kenya, I am part of a group of scientists who use molecular genetics tools for virus discovery and diagnosis of pathogenic viruses, bacteria and parasites in different animal species.

In the recent decade, dangerous human pathogenic viruses have emerged in different geographical locations within Africa, with outbreaks occurring almost annually. Majority of these viruses are zoonotic viruses, which means they can be transmitted directly from animals to humans. Bats, non-human primates, and rodents are known to harbor zoonotic viruses, which circulate silently in hosts. These viruses have a high mortality rate of up to 90% in some cases. The Ebola virus, a member of the filovirus family, is an example of a zoonotic virus that made global headlines recently during a deadly outbreak in West Africa, resulting in over 11,000 deaths.

Microbial adaptation, which is the ability of microorganisms such as viruses to endure selective pressures of their environment, as well as the influence of human activities, are two major drivers of the emergence of these zoonotic viruses. As a result, most of these viruses have ribonucleic acid (RNA) genomes with high mutation rates. For my PhD dissertation, I am studying the zoonotic potential of filoviruses circulating in rodents, bats, non-human primates and humans in Laikipia and Turkana counties of Kenya. In these counties, animals live in close proximity to humans. In addition, climate change has led to acute water scarcity in these areas, forcing humans and animals to share the limited watering points available. Furthermore, inhabitants of these areas have been known to feed on bushmeat during prolonged dry seasons. These interactions have thus exposed humans to ongoing life cycles of zoonotic viruses. While this is an area of increasing importance, there is scarce scientific data on filoviruses in Kenya. My research aims to fill some of these knowledge gaps to help improve the prevention and control of these zoonotic viruses in the country. Moreover, further studies of the isolated viruses will be of benefit to drug, vaccine, and diagnostic kit development studies.

Kenya has made significant gains in the field of genomics through the establishment of molecular genetics and molecular biology laboratories in research institutes, health clinics, and food and agricultural units. For example, molecular genetics is used to study population genetics in animals, pathogens and plants in local research institutes, while in clinical setups, molecular genetics is used in the detection of viruses such as HIV and human papilloma viruses (HPV). Universities have also developed courses in molecular biology, which are building critical capacities in this field. However, most learning institutions in Kenya do not have access to molecular genetics laboratories, and there are also very few laboratories that offer gene sequencing services. As a result, many Kenyan researchers are forced to ship their samples to other countries where sequencing is relatively affordable. Expanding the field of genomics in Kenya will require greater investment in laboratory infrastructure, increased training of local scientists in the use of sequencing and bio-informatics tools, and continued exposure of younger generation students to the field through coursework.


About the Author

Peris Ambala is a 2nd Year Ph.D. Student at Kenyatta University’s Medical Laboratory Sciences department and a Research Scientist at the Institute of Primate Research in Kenya. She is a member of Mawazo Institute’s inaugural cohort of Ph.D. Scholars, and is passionate about creating a positive impact through her research.