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University of Idaho student, recognized with national scholarship, researches how susceptible animals are to COVID-19

Peik Lund-Andersen, a junior from the University of Idaho, has received a scholarship from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation as he researches how susceptible certain animal species are to COVID-19.  (Courtesy of the University of Idaho)

The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention has said SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, likely originated in bats.

And as efforts remain ongoing to neutralize the current COVID-19 outbreak, a University of Idaho student has been recognized with a national scholarship as he researches just how susceptible certain animal species are to the virus.

Peik Lund-Andersen, a junior studying molecular biology and biotechnology, is one of two UI students recognized as a Goldwater scholar this year by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

The scholars, who are nominated by their schools for consideration, are each awarded scholarships of up to $7,500 for their final years of undergraduate study to cover tuition, fees, books and room and board.

Lund-Andersen and fellow Vandal Nicholas Pancheri, a junior biological engineering student from Moscow, were two of three students based in Idaho named among this year’s 410 Goldwater scholars, beating out an estimated 5,000 nominees. Pancheri, enrolled in UI’s University Honors Program, is researching how a tendon’s specific function affects its development, according to the university.

“I was super excited to get it,” Lund-Andersen said. “It was just a long wait to figure out whether I had actually gotten it.”

Physics professor Marty Ytreberg and Jagdish Patel, research assistant professor of biological sciences, serve as mentors for Lund-Andersen with his COVID-19 animal susceptibility research. The professors operate a joint lab, which Lund-Andersen joined in fall 2019.

Patel received funding through the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program last summer to pursue the COVID-19 research, he said. By then, Lund-Andersen had a few other projects under his belt, so he was “our first choice to help out,” Patel and Ytreberg said.

“Peik is very deserving of this award because he has demonstrated all the traits to be one the leading researchers,” the professors said in a statement. “He is a very talented and productive researcher with creative mindset and leadership skills. During the pandemic, when many people became less productive, Peik became even more productive.”

Lund-Andersen, a 21-year-old from Sandpoint, said while he volunteered to work on the project after hearing of it during a lab meeting, there wasn’t anything in particular that drew him to the research.

“Sometimes I just hear about a project and think that it sounds cool, you know?” he said. “It’s obviously very relevant research as well. The importance of it is that this virus is widely regarded to have come from an animal species, so animal species can basically act as a reservoir for the virus.”

The research itself involves virtual simulations to predict a particular animal species’ susceptibility.

SARS-CoV-2 has what are called spike proteins. Infections are known to start after these proteins attach to a part of an animal cell called the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptor, better known as ACE-2.

Since the project started this past fall, Lund-Andersen said researchers have run binding simulations using 3D models of an animal’s ACE-2 protein sequence. And while the animal sequences do not have known structures, Lund-Andersen said researchers have used the known human ACE-2 template to model other animal structures using homology modeling.

Lund-Andersen said the team is looking at more than 600 different species in the study, including more than 50 kinds of rodents and more than 100 types of bats.

“Failure to identify domestic, peridomestic, and wild animals that are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 opens the possibility that animals could prolong the current pandemic and cause future unexpected outbreaks in human and animal populations,” Patel and Ytreberg said. “Peik’s research is significant because it will be a first step towards addressing this issue and will help make informed decisions on animal surveillance policies.”

Lund-Andersen said he has seen research using similar methods concerning COVID-19 animal susceptibility, though the UI project may be looking at certain animal species that have not been evaluated. The research will likely continue into this summer, he said.