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National Science Foundation
Infectious Diseases Spreading
 
Medical Mystery Solved
 
Frogs VS. Trout
 
Deer Susceptible to Disease
 
Lyme Disease on the Rise
 
Classroom Resources
 
 
 

Overview: Infectious Diseases Spreading

West Nile virus.  Hantavirus. Lyme disease. All are infectious diseases spreading in animals, and in humans. Is our interaction with the environment somehow responsible for the increase in incidence of these diseases?

Frogs and other amphibians in Panama and elsewhere have been devastated by a waterborne fungus
Pathogens, or disease-causing microbes, rarely cause extinctions in the species they infect. There are a few examples, however, where a pathogen may have resulted in the extinction of a species. Frogs in El Cope, Panama, affected by a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, are a case-in-point. One frog species there that lived along riverbanks disappeared completely in one month.

Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

A joint National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health program--Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID)-- supports efforts to understand the underlying ecological and biological mechanisms behind human-induced environmental changes and the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. Projects funded through the EEID program and other NSF programs allow scientists to study how large-scale environmental events--such as habitat destruction, invasions of non-native species and pollution—alter the risks of emergence of viral, parasitic and bacterial diseases in humans and animals.

Researchers supported in the EEID program are advancing basic theory related to infectious diseases and applying that knowledge to improve our understanding of how pathogens spread through populations at a time of increasing global change.

The benefits of research on the ecology of infectious diseases include development of theories of how diseases are transmitted, improved understanding of unintended health effects of development projects; increased capacity to forecast disease outbreaks and knowledge of how infectious diseases emerge and reemerge.

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Disease transmission is a complex process that involves the disease organism, disease vectors, disease hosts and the predators of those hosts. It links relatively pristine areas with human habitations and human-dominated areas.

Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

"Virtually all the world's terrestrial and aquatic communities have undergone dramatic changes in biodiversity due primarily to habitat transformations such as deforestation and agricultural intensification, invasions of exotic species, chemical contamination and climate-change events," said Sam Scheiner, EEID program director at NSF. "The coincidence of broad-scale environmental changes with the emergence of infectious diseases may point to underlying and predictable ecological relationships."

Examples of studies funded by the EEID program include research on the origin and spread of the aspergillus-gorgonian coral disease and how climate and environment may have worked as facilitators of the disease; effects of human-induced change on the ecology of human pathogens in North Carolina’s Neuse River estuary, which is polluted by excess nutrients from human activities; the microbial community ecology of tick-borne human pathogens; plague as a model for disease dynamics; ecological reasons for rodent-borne disease outbreaks; and how social organization influences an infectious disease outbreak.

Further information about EEID program support is available in the latest program solicitation.

By Cheryl Dybas
Ecology of Infection Diseases A Special Report