Older ducks poop fewer viruses – a story of how to sell a story (and some science, too)

Flickr user ‘John K’ under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Flying Mallards – great shot by Flickr user ‘John K’ (distributed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

Last Friday, we published a paper in Applied and Environmental Microbiology with the title ‘How does sampling methodology influence molecular detection and isolation success in influenza A virus field studies?’ The study is a thorough analysis of 26,586 samples collected for detection of influenza A viruses from Mallards over some 9-10 years. The aim was to tap from the knowledge base gained in our long-term studies and provide some advice on best field and lab practices for others that want to initiate similar surveillance schemes for this virus. Thus, this is an article with high relevance for a limited crowd of people in our field, but not one that will attract hordes of interested ecologists. But as a methods paper it will be widely cited and useful.

In the paper we show which type of sample methodology that gives the best results. Not surprisingly, molecular detection was more sensitive than isolation, and virus isolation success was proportional to the amount of RNA copies in the sample – e.g. the more virus the easier to grow them in eggs. Comparing the results from specific RRT-PCRs and from isolation it was clear that co-infections were very common in the investigated birds. The effect of sample type and detection methods warrants some caution for interpretation of results of surveillance data, which we discuss in the paper.

Publishing a paper is great, but ideally the work doesn’t end there. One can blog about it, like I often do here, or one can try to push for the results in conventional media. The latter is tricky, and not something we do for every paper. However, this time we had some time to spare, and drafted a press release and sent it merrily along to the university’s Communications Office. One would think that a methods paper is a hard sell, but no – it was picked up by roughly 40 Swedish newspapers (mainly in short electronic form). That is pretty amazing! The reason? A catchy headline, of course.

The press release lifted up a smaller part of the paper, namely that for a given Ct-value, the isolation success was lower in samples from adult birds than from juveniles. This could be interpreted as adult birds (having had exposure to virus in previous infections) being more adept in limiting infections, manifested as less shed functional/infectious virus per given Ct-value. This is an interesting result that has bearing on our view of the epidemiology of the virus in the wild reservoir – but it was a side issue, not the main focus of the article. Anyway, during a sampling trip to Ottenby, we came up with the headline ‘Older ducks poop fewer viruses’ (Äldre änder bajsar färre virus). And this, my friends, is a title that was catchy enough to carry through the noise.

Communicating your science is important for a bunch of reasons, plus it is a part of the job description of us academics. But it is quite hard, and rewards at times unpredictable. Over the years, our research on ‘what scary deadly bugs do‘ has received much media attention. This is partly because the topic as such is appealing, but more likely that we actually put an effort into it. And time with media is time well spent. Anyway, that was a story about how to sell a story. For the real story please read the original article:

Latorre-Margalef, N., Avril, A., Tolf, C., Olsen, B. & Waldenström, J. 2015. How does sampling methodology influence molecular detection and isolation success in influenza A virus field studies? Applied and Environmental Microbiology, ahead of print, doi: 10.1128/AEM.03283-15.

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4 thoughts on “Older ducks poop fewer viruses – a story of how to sell a story (and some science, too)

    • And how would you know? The press release was issued in Swedish and you have no idea how the content matched the headline – that’s just an assumption you make. The actual press release was very close to the subject, but lifted up one part of the study more than the other. And yes, it had a snappy title, but one that aligned with the content we presented.

      (And it is interesting to be called a spammer by someone who chooses to make anonymous comments)

      • I concluded it from your description.
        The comment was not so serious and a little ironic (“pfui”) –
        in line with the post.
        Spammer may not quite be the right expression …how is it called …
        trying to increase attention .
        Guenter Stertenbrink, Germany (gsgs in the forums and blogs)

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