NSF PR 03-119 - October 14, 2003
Ecology of Infectious Diseases Grants Awarded by National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health
Arlington, Va.—Two government agencies have announced funding for six projects under the Ecology of Infectious Diseases (EID) program, the fourth year of funding in this multi-year effort. The joint National Science Foundation (NSF) and NIH (National Institutes of Health) program supports efforts to understand the underlying ecological and biological mechanisms that govern relationships between human-induced environmental changes, and the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. Interdisciplinary projects funded through the EID program will study how large-scale environmental events—such as habitat destruction, biological invasion and pollution—alter the risks of emergence of viral, parasitic and bacterial diseases in humans and animals.
"The EID program illustrates the benefits of interagency coordination," says Mary Clutter, NSF assistant director for biological sciences. "It will take combined efforts not only across disciplines, but also across agencies, to understand the ecology of infectious diseases."
The current spread of West Nile virus, for example, brings home the fact that we need to understand the ecological dynamics of diseases and pathogens, said Sam Scheiner, EID program director at NSF. "Furthermore, we're running out of time for that. These six studies demonstrate how basic research can have important societal impacts."
Over the past 20 years, unprecedented rates of change in diversity of non-human biota have coincided with the emergence and re-emergence of numerous infectious diseases around the world, said Scheiner.
"Virtually all the world's terrestrial and aquatic communities have undergone dramatic changes in biodiversity and biocomplexity due primarily to habitat transformation such as deforestation and agricultural intensification, invasions of exotic species, chemical contamination and climate-change events," he said. "The coincidence of broad-scale environmental changes, and the emergence of infectious diseases may point to underlying and predictable ecological relationships."
Yet presently, both basic and applied research in infectious disease ecology is largely piecemeal, said Scheiner. The potential benefits, say infectious disease specialists and ecologists, of an interdisciplinary research program in this area include: development of disease transmission theory; improved understanding of unintended health effects of development projects; increased capacity to forecast outbreaks; and improved understanding of how diseases emerge and re-emerge.
"By bringing together communities of scientists, including epidemiologists, ecologists, mathematicians, molecular biologists and geographic information specialists, we hope to make significant breakthroughs in our ability to predict, prevent and mitigate disease outbreaks," says program director Josh Rosenthal of NIH's Fogarty International Center, which co-funded the research. "We're trying to put scientists, public health officials and environmental planners in the driver's seat rather than in a reactive mode for disease control."
This year's EID awards include studies of the origins and spread of the aspergillus-gorgonian coral disease, and how climate and environment may have worked as facilitators of that disease; effects of human-induced change on the ecology of human pathogens in North Carolina's Neuse River estuary, which is polluted with excess nutrients; the microbial community ecology of tick-borne human pathogens; plague as a model for disease dynamics; ecological drivers of rodent-borne disease outbreaks; and how social organization influences an infectious disease process, using honey bee colonies as a model.
For more information on the EID program, and on this year's EID grant awards, please see: http://www.nsf.gov/bio/pubs/awards/eid.htm
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