Once upon a time, Kimberly Neil dreamed of becoming a wildlife veterinarian. But then she fell in love with research—in particular, genomic rabbit research.
Neil’s current work looks at two similar species: the New England cottontail, and the Eastern cottontail. As she explains, with the exception of a few, isolated populations, the native New England cottontail has all but disappeared from the region that inspired its name. Meanwhile, the nonnative Eastern cottontail, which was introduced to the area in the early-mid 1900s, has thrived.
For Neil, it all starts with a piece of genetic material harvested from each rabbit species, thanks to her collaboration with scientists at the University of Rhode Island, Roger Williams Park Zoo, and Queens Zoo, as well as nearby state wildlife biologists. In the lab, she extracts DNA from each sample and uses high-throughput gene sequencing technologies to sequence the rabbits’ own immune system genes, as well as bacterial and parasite genes present in the rabbits’ microbiomes.
“From an applied conservation viewpoint, we know very little about immunogenetics or disease in either of these species,” says Neil. “My research draws from conservation genetics, disease ecology, and evolutionary ecology to understand immune system genes, potential pathogens, and bacterial community—or ‘microbiome’—of these two species.”
Neil hopes that her research will inform conservation at the local level, but also the wider field of genomics regarding immune genes and the microbiome—not just in rabbits, but in other animals as well.
“The conservation challenges associated with the New England cottontail, and the Eastern cottontail—managing imperiled and introduced species, respectively, captive breeding, translocations—are of worldwide relevance,” she says. “Understanding how potential pathogens and immune genes involved in survival vary in these cottontails is highly relevant to other species as well.”