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Disease Ecology

Disease ecology is the study of how and why diseases emerge from the environment. It is concerned with the biology of hosts and pathogens and how their contact produces spatio-temporal patterns of disease. The interaction of microbial communities with invertebrates is of particular interest in determining how diseases are spread in each of the following projects: 

Buruli Ulcer Disease Ecology

Buruli Ulcer is caused by Mycobacterium ulcerans and has been documented in over 30 nations with tropical and subtropical climates. The disease itself is characterized by the destruction of skin and soft tissue that creates large ulcers primarily on the legs and arms of infected individuals. Although usually not painful, this disease can cause permanent scarring and loss of limb function for many patients, resulting in a disability that impacts individuals in third world nations acutely as well as creating a social stigma around presence of the disease. The Global Buruli Ulcer Initiative was enacted in 1998 by the World Health Organization with the goal of coordinating Buruli Ulcer research and drawing attention to this neglected disease. The Benbow lab is currently funded by the World Health Organization and collaborates with researchers at 7 other institutions in an effort to learn more about Buruli Ulcer disease transmission and pathogen ecology. Current studies take place in Ghana and Benin and seek to explain the role of environmental, geographical and sociocultural factors in disease outbreaks and overall prevalence.

Blow fly - Pathogen Ecology

There are a numerous amount of insects in this world that have been identified as vectors, carriers of microorganisms that are capable of leaving the host to colonize another organism or material. It has been hypothesized that blow flies (Diptera: Calliphoridae) belong in this category as well. Through a current experiment, the Benbow lab of Michigan State University and Tomberlin lab of Texas A&M are trying to determine how much impact can blow flies have the microbial community assembly on decomposing remains. But a question remains if this transference of pathogens is accidental or an act of facilitation. We hypothesize that specific species of blow flies carry certain types of bacteria that they use to help facilitate their colonization on a piece of carrion. These pathogens could act in a variety of ways such as helping with the digestion of tissue for the larvae, eliminate harmful microorganisms that might endanger the blow flies’ progeny, or even inhibit the colonization of another species of blow fly.

Vernal Pool Invertebrate-Microbial Ecology

What environmental parameters cause a disease pathogen to emerge from the environment or become more accessible for transmission? This local vernal pool study attempts to answer this question by examining the effect of hydroperiod (water fluctuation) on biofilm development and soil microbial communities. How these changes might impact aquatic macroinvertebrate communities is also a component of the study. As a part of this work, field microcosms were developed that were later used in Ghana, Africa as a supplement to the Buruli Ulcer research. One aspect of the BU work involves investigating how inundation and subsequent drying of soils might affect disease transmission through pathogen development and incubation. This study has allowed for the development of concepts and hypothesis testing that can apply to Buruli Ulcer work and also answer questions about the extent of inter-kingdom interaction in these temporary water bodies.