Home / Feature / Permanent readiness

Permanent readiness

Donald King, The Pirbright Institute

Outbreaks of livestock diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease have devastating effects on food security and economic growth, particularly in developing countries. Early diagnosis and implementation of control strategies such as vaccination and the regulation of animal movements are key to reducing production losses.

Donald King currently heads the World Reference Laboratory for foot-and-mouth disease, at The Pirbright Institute that offers a diagnostic service to detect the virus (or antibodies) in samples on a 24/7 basis. Virus samples sent to the Institute are characterised to determine their origin, likely mode of transmission and the best control strategies. Donald King’s research focuses on developing and evaluating new diagnostic methods, and using sequencing data to trace the origin and movement of these viruses.


The Q&A

What would revolutionise your field?
a device with similar properties to a tricorder

What scientific questions are you currently addressing? And how are you tackling them?

I am Head of the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Reference Laboratory at The Pirbright Institute. In addition to our national responsibilities to the UK Government (via the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), we support the activities of a number of international bodies such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food-and-Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the European Union to control this important disease of livestock. In this context, our research work addresses diverse scientific questions that range from applied projects that aim to develop improved diagnostic tools, to exciting fundamental science that explores the evolutionary biology of the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease.


How did you become interested in this field of work?

My research career started at the University of Leeds, where I carried out my PhD on the immune system of seals following a large decrease in numbers due to infection by a new distemper virus. This project sparked my interest in infectious diseases and directly led on to a wildlife health post-doc in the US (at the University of California – Davis), and a research post at APHA (Weybridge). I have now been involved in veterinary research projects for over 25 years.


Why is your research important? Where will it have the greatest impact?

As we saw in 2001 and 2007, outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease are devastating to the rural farming economy. Therefore, our scientific research is focused at delivering tools (such as vaccines, diagnostics and epidemiological models) to control this disease if it were to enter the country, as well as to monitor the changing threats to the UK.


How long have you been at the Institute? What drew you to Pirbright?

I joined The Pirbright Institute in 2002. Previously, while in the US I had witnessed (from a distance) the excellent international reputation and esteem in which the Institute is held. However, after deciding that this was a place that I would like to work, I had to apply for three different jobs before I actually got appointed!


What do you enjoy most about your job?

My job is very varied and I am fortunate to get to meet a lot of different people via visits to collaborators and overseas laboratories. However, the most enjoyable part of my job is the excitement of interpreting new data and the sense of being the first to make a new discovery.


Are there any advantages of working at a research institute compared with other research environments?

Our new specialist high-containment facilities make Pirbright a unique place to work and are probably the best anywhere in the world. In addition, the relatively small size of the Institute means that there are many friendly faces and opportunities for collaboration amongst colleagues.


What would you say is your greatest scientific achievement?

I get most satisfaction from seeing the results of our research applied to real-world settings to solve questions that arise during outbreaks of exotic livestock diseases. As an example, our work to develop high-resolution sequencing tools has been used recently to control foot-and-mouth outbreaks in the UK and Europe.


What discovery would most revolutionise your field?

Much of our applied research explores simple-to-use technologies that can rapidly generate a diagnostic result, so that local decisions can be made in real-time close to an animal rather than waiting for a laboratory result. Recent advances in molecular and sequencing technologies now make it possible for us to imagine the development of a device with similar properties to a tricorder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tricorder – as first appeared on Star Trek). Of course, the real challenge is making these tests inexpensive so that they can be used widely for animal diseases.


Do you have any advice to offer future scientists?

Don’t be afraid to question or challenge the established view-point (within reason!). It is surprising how many new discoveries and in-sights arise from asking very simple questions such as… why is it that….?


Further information: