PBS NewsHour report highlights DRI dust research to understand how devastating Valley Fever fungus spreads

Scientists use their own invention to study processes involved in the spread of air-borne disease

For Immediate Release: June 18, 2013

LAS VEGAS – Using a dust detection device patented by Desert Research Institute scientists, Dr. Vic Etyemezian and George Nikolich have the ability to identify how “Valley Fever,” a devastating fungus called Coccidioides, spreads.

PBS-VIC-INTERVIEW-1-thbEtyemezian and Nikolich, along with other DRI colleagues, prototyped a novel device called a PI-SWERL, short for Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab, 13 years ago. The pair have since continued to develop this portable wind tunnel equipment to measure the amount and type of dust and particles that become airborne at changing wind speeds.

“The goal in developing the PI-SWERL was to provide a turn-key device that was easy to move, required minimal setup, and could be operated by one person,” Etyemezian said.  

Etyemezian and Nikolich were first motivated to invent this device to test and measure the potential for wind erosion in sensitive landscapes as well as to measure dust emissions from everyday surfaces and activities. The two have been able to use it in the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts and other regions worldwide to quantify the amount of dust that is suspended under changing wind patterns.

Recently, their work garnered national attention when PBS NEWSHOUR specifically conducted an interview with Etyemezian about the PI-SWERL’s ability to detect how the spores travel regionally. “It’s important to bring national level attention to what is perceived to be primarily a Western U.S. health concern,” Etyemezian said.

PBS-VIC-INTERVIEW-2-thbValley Fever often develops in hot and arid climates and is classified as a mold when it spreads. Spores can exist within the soil of these climates and travel when the soil gets stirred up in the air from winds, farming, and even construction. Once airborne, the spores can travel hundreds of miles with the potential to impact populations, where people can breathe the spores in their lungs and become infected.

As it stands, about 150,000 people contract the disease every year. There is currently no cure and the disease can be life threatening, particularly for people who have compromised immune systems and for young children and the elderly.

“The PI-SWERL can make a difference in expanding scientific knowledge in relation to Valley Fever, which in turn demonstrates a better understanding of our environment and the natural processes that leads to enhancing the understanding of human health issues in Nevada and beyond,” Etyemezian said.

This investigation is part of a grant from the NASA Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) Program and is focused on NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, which serves as a test bed for identifying potential impacts of climate change on NASA’s infrastructure. At Dryden, Etyemezian and Nikolich collected various dust samples using the PI-SWERL to create a situation similar to what occurs when dust blows throughout the desert. The collected samples are being analyzed by Dr. Antje Lauer, a microbiologist and fellow colleague at California State University, Bakersfield.

PBS-VIC-INTERVIEW-thbFor Etyemezian and Nikolich, using the PI-SWERL will help them determine the type of soil, wind levels and the moisture content that are required to spread the Valley Fever spores. The long-term goal is to aid in finding a way to predict how the spores spread in hopes of leading to a healthier population throughout the desert Southwest.

“Through this research, we’re examining the future environment and environmental impacts on infrastructure, quality of life, and health with an eye towards identifying potential threats and opportunities that are over the horizon and out of the mainstream of collective knowledge at the moment,” Etyemezian said.

PBS NewsHour Video

Title: "PBS NewsHour features DRI's patented dust detection device and Valley Fever research"
Source: PBS NewsHour
Aired: 6/26/13
Keywords: dri, valley fever, pi-swerl, NASA, Dryden,
Description: Desert Research Institute scientists, Dr. Vic Etyemezian and George Nikolich were featured on PBS NewsHour on June 26, 2013 in a report on the spread of a resilient fungus that causes a deadly infection known as Valley Fever. The report highlighted the role of dust in the dramatic rise of Valley Fever and showcased how a device called the PI-SWERL (Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab), patented by Etyemezian and Nikolich, is helping scientists detect and understand how the spores travel regionally.

More Information

Read more about the Valley Fever work being conducted at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center:

About Desert Research Institute: DRI, the nonprofit research campus of the Nevada System of Higher Education, strives to be the world leader in environmental sciences through the application of knowledge and technologies to improve people’s lives throughout Nevada and the world.

All DRI news releases are available at: http://news.dri.edu/