New grants promote greater understanding of infectious disease

This post contributed by Lindsay Deel, a Ph.D. student in geography at West Virginia University and Intern with ESA’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Infectious diseases won’t know what hit them. A massive new collaborative effort between funding sources in the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) takes aim at infectious diseases from ecological and social perspectives, reported the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a recent press release. The overall goal of the suite of eight projects is to improve understanding of the factors affecting disease transmission, said NSF, but a major focus will also be on building models to help predict and control outbreaks. Each of these projects examines different themes within the global context of infectious disease. For example, Tony Goldberg (Professor of Epidemiology, University of Wisconsin–Madison) and colleagues will investigate the spread of HIV from its origin in monkeys to humans by examining similar viruses that are currently impacting wild monkeys in Uganda. This project will also study human social factors – such as awareness, beliefs, and behaviors – surrounding the transmission of such diseases. Another project helmed by David Rizzo (Professor of Plant Pathology, University of California–Davis) will explore how interacting forest disturbances – such as fire and drought – may control the emergence, persistence, and spread of invasive pathogens using the case of sudden oak death – a disease caused by a non-native pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum. “Over the past 10 years, potentially millions of trees in California and Oregon coastal forests have died as a result of this emerging disease,” explains Rizzo. “The goal of this new grant is [to] link this new disturbance agent (sudden oak death) with pre-existing disturbance agents (fire, drought) in coastal forests.” Samantha Forde (Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California – Santa Cruz) will lead a project using a simplified laboratory system of E. coli bacteria and its viruses as a model to study why some viruses have evolved the ability to infect multiple host species, while others can only infect one.  “This will further a general understanding of the dynamics of disease in natural systems and help to improve public health initiatives,” she says. From the modeling perspective, Armand Kuris (Professor of Biological Sciences, University of California at Santa Barbara) and colleagues will delve into the complexity of ecological systems and how the level of complexity might influence disease dynamics.  Kuris and colleagues hope to bring the role of infectious diseases into the core of ecological thinking, comparable to the roles of predation, competition, disturbance and resource quality. Joseph Tien (Professor of Mathematics, Ohio State University) will examine the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti. ...

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Balancing human well-being with environmental sustainability: an ecologist’s story of Haiti

“Parc National La Visite is one of the few remaining refuges for Haiti’s once-remarkable biodiversity. It is also the only refuge for over 1,000 desperately poor families, the poorest people I have encountered anywhere on this planet. Naked children with bloated stomachs stood next to pine-bark lean-tos and waved shyly to me as I walked through the forest. Their parents eke out the meanest existence from small gardens and, if they are fortunate, a few chickens.” This is how ecologist Norm Christensen from Duke University began the story of his journey in Haiti. Christensen’s article, featured in the “Trails and Tribulations” column from the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, touches on a sensitive but vital subject: What does “sustainable development” mean to those who are barely making it day-by-day? “In the context of places like Haiti and the other desperately poor areas, sustainable development—to think of it or define it—is in terms of improving the prosperity of some of the world’s very poorest people in ways that are not going to compromise opportunities for future generations and indeed are going to enhance those opportunities,” Christensen explained in a recent Beyond the Frontier podcast. Last year’s earthquake in Haiti caused severe widespread damage to the country’s already fragile infrastructure. A subsequent cholera outbreak added to the devastation. In times of such palpable human suffering, it can be difficult to imagine the role of the environment; however, Haiti’s history of deforestation is a strong example of the link between people and ecosystems—that is, the connection between infectious disease and a decline in biodiversity. As Ethan Budiansky explained in a Huffington Post article: “Over 98 percent of [Haiti] has been deforested by logging and improper environmental management. The resulting lack of biodiversity leads to impoverished soil, which is more susceptible to erosion. The eroded hillsides cause deadly mudslides during heavy rains and pollute drinking water. Farmers find it harder to grow nutritious food, and Haitians become malnourished, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera. The chain of events moves forward with a cold logic; an unhealthy ecosystem results in unhealthy people. Fortunately, it can be reversed by planting trees through sustainable agro-forestry and following basic plant and soil management techniques.” While committing to sustainable development is certainly dependent upon those who choose to practice it, Christensen explained in the podcast and article, it is not solely their responsibility.  Everyone—whether they live in a developed or underdeveloped nation—is a steward of the planet. And our actions affect more than just our immediate environment. Read more in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article “The...

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From the Community: December Edition

The following links highlight ecology from the month of December, but there are several science-related end-of-year lists floating around as well.

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Frog legs: more than just a culinary curiosity

Frog legs are a culinary tradition in many cultures—featured in French and Cantonese cuisine, among others—and have been showing up in American cuisine as well, often as a culinary curiosity. In a recent article in the Washington Post, for example, frog legs were presented as a delicacy that could become more popular with American consumers if presented in a new way.

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Sexually-mature tortoises are at greatest risk of disease

Currently, upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) and habitat loss are contributors to a decline in gopher and desert tortoise populations. And since these reptiles are keystone species—that is, the habitats they create are home to more than 300 other species—their population decline significantly affects the ecosystem. According to a recent study in Ecology, sexually-mature male tortoises were at the greatest risk of carrying and spreading URTD due in large part to their social behavior.

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How a polluted environment can lead to illness

A study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics revealed alarming findings: A link between children diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and traces of the breakdown of organophosphate pesticides in their urine. Pollutants like pesticides can have both direct and indirect effects on human and wildlife health as a result of changes in an ecosystem.

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Nutrient enrichment linked to diseases in humans and wildlife

Scientists have provided a rather grim prognosis for global health: the recent increase in nutrient enrichment due to human activities, such as nitrogen pollution through fossil fuel combustion, is likely contributing to several varieties of infectious diseases in humans and wildlife.

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The ecology within

The concept of biological control is no new idea in ecology – people have been transporting living things to control other living things since the late 18th century. The most famous examples seem to be the big failures, where biocontrols become invasive themselves – such as mongooses introduced to Hawaii to control rats but that instead decimated populations of native birds. Geneticists at the University of Queensland have now successfully applied the biocontrol concept to the ecology of a disease – dengue fever, to be precise. The researchers have cultured a strain of the Wolbachia bacteria that cuts the lifespan of mosquitoes in half — enough time to prevent the dengue virus within them to mature. The result is that even when infected young mosquitoes bite onto human flesh, the human gets away dengue-free. The bacteria don’t prevent the mosquitoes from breeding, so introducing the Wolbachia into wild mosquito populations won’t wipe them out. Because only the longest-living insects harbor the mature, virulent dengue, the researchers also think that the bacteria is “safe”: the disease probably won’t be able to evolve a shorter life cycle itself. But, of course, this remains to be seen in the wild. Just goes to remind us that ecology is as important in the guts of some of the smallest animals on the planet as it is across continents. Read more about Scott O’Neill and his colleagues’ work in last week’s Science (full text by subscription only) and in this great article on...

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