Agriculturalists know all too well that weeds, insects, crop disease and viral disease in livestock change and evolve, complicating efforts to control them.

Now, a $3 million grant will help researchers at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine — as well as farmers — learn more about how porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, or PRRSV, evolves and spreads. The research also seeks to help producers stay ahead of the disease.

"Studying PRRSV’s evolution will help us better understand and hopefully control PRRSV, but it will also help us understand the evolution and drivers of genetic diversity in viruses in humans and other animals," said Kim VanderWaal, assistant professor in the university’s Department of Veterinary Population Medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

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She’s the principal investigator on the project, which also involves researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute. Fifteen people will work on the project, which has funding for the next four years.

The research will help scientists and producers anticipate a swine herd’s susceptibility to different strains of PRRSV and customize efforts to control them. Data generated by the project could be used in future vaccine designs, the U of M said.

The project also seeks to track the spread of different PRRSV strains, including newly evolved ones, according to the university.

Generally, a "significant new type or strain" of PRRSV appears every three to five years, and the last new strain occurred in 2014, increasing the timeliness of the research, VanderWaal said.

Leading producer

The new research project is partially built on data collected by the Morrison Swine Health Monitoring Project at the University of Minnesota, which tracks the occurrence of PRRSV in roughly 50% of the United States’ breeding swine research, according to the university.

"One of the reasons Minnesota is so ideally situated for this research is that this dataset is one-of-a-kind," VanderWaal said.

PRRSV was first discovered in Indiana, North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota in the late 1980s. Iowa leads the nation in pork production, with North Carolina ranked second, Minnesota third, Illinois fourth and Indiana fifth. Iowa, North Carolina and Minnesota combined account for more than half of total U.S. pork production.

South Dakota ranks 11th, Montana 23rd and North Dakota 25th.

The grant is funded jointly by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the United Kingdom Government’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The Roslin Institute website describes the institution’s mission as aiming to "enhance the lives of animals and humans through world class research in animal biology." Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, was born there in 1996.