Research Assistants Needed: Primate Disease Ecology

Hello all. In a few days I will be in Peru starting on the first portion of my research. I will be taking a field biology class while I’m there because…why not? But I will also be conducting my own research with the help of FPI and research assistants. The lucky students this summer who will be a part of my research team will have the opportunity to learn field lab work along with how to track and collect behavioral data on the primates. I have been researching and reviewing parasite identification protocols that can be done in the field and will be testing its feasibility and accuracy on top of doing my intended master’s work.

I will going out into the field again the end of this November to mid January. If any of you are interested in gaining (or adding!) field experience, please consider signing up as a research assistant for the disease ecology program! If your dates coincides with mines, I will be available to personally teach you how track the primates, record behavioral data, collect fecal samples, and (depending on the results from this field season) carry out disease ecology lab work. Regardless, I will be introducing all my research assistants to the field of disease ecology (and how to keep a good field and lab journal. They’re different!).

If you are interested, I posted a link to the advertisement on Primate Info Net. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any question at all about the program.


Comments on plant pathology and disease dynamics

All organisms on earth are connected through their dependence on nutrients. Many of these organisms, including humans, rely on plants and other agricultural products as a major food source. But what would happen if a major portion of these plants were destroyed by a fungal pathogen? These diseases would affect populations, ecosystems, and the world at large. As a result, major funding is needed in order to study and understand disease cycles of fungal pathogens and potential effects on plants and ecosystems.

Acknowledging disease is the key to preventing it. Understanding the transmission and evolution of pathogens is essential to future treatment. In order to predict the future implications of a particular pathogen, many scientists have urged the need to study disease cycles (Wolf & Isard, 2007). These cycles detail the “stages of development [of a pathogen] including dormancy, reproduction, dispersal, and pathogenesis” (Wolf & Isard, 2007). Understanding this cycle can help answer many questions.  For example, how does a fungal pathogen overcome dormancy? How is it able to form a new generation of pathogens? Better yet, how can we stop these processes? Answers to these questions and more can be found through important and necessary research.

If a fungal disease affects a plant crop, consumers in the ecosystem will suffer. This will begin to limit biodiversity as populations of small herbivores begin to decline. As a result, predator populations will begin to suffer and finally, the potential effect on mankind is frightening. The effect of plant disease can be deadly, as seen during the Irish potato famine. From 1845 to 1846, a previously unknown disease wiped out a third of the potato crop in Ireland and caused widespread starvation (Hudler, 1998). Today we know the fungus Phytophthora infestans is responsible for this tragedy. However, at the time of the famine, Irish farmers struggled to find an explanation for the condition. Some blamed excess water while others blamed leprechauns (Hudler, 1998). Although we now know the cause of this fungal disease, there are still many questions to be answered. This widespread epidemic proved to have great implications and an even greater outbreak could be lurking around the corner.

Even though they have created havoc in many communities, fungi are essential to almost every ecosystem (Cowan, 2001). While many fungi produce pathogenic myotoxins, others produce important antibiotics (Calvo). Still other fungal species decompose organic matter or serve as a food source. Clearly, fungi produce both benefit and harm in ecosystems. As a result, initial research should aim to maximize the benefits of fungi while limiting the pathogenic qualities that destroy populations and ecosystems. These control mechanisms can be developed based on the disease cycle of a given pathogen. For example, a pathogen might be easily limited during dispersal or reproduction. Through careful monitoring of disease cycles, these mechanisms allow scientists to predict the outbreak of a disease and to prevent it (Wolf & Isard 2007).

Life on earth is a delicate balance. Human beings rely on the presence of fungi and at the same time are threatened by the potential of fungal pathogens. As a result, it is important to understand fungi and the disease cycles they express. Funding for fungal research will first benefit plant survival and then entire ecosystems. The potential harm of pathogens can be controlled and the benefits of fungi can be increased through future research and understanding of disease cycles.  I therefore encourage you to support funding for pathological research and the study of fungi. Further understanding of these diseases will protect many plant species and the world at large.

Works Cited:

Calvo, A. Molecular studies of agriculturally and medically important fungi.              http://www.bios.niu.edu/calvo/calvo_lab.shtml

Cowan, A. (2001). Fungi- life support for ecosystems. Essential ARB, 4:1-6.

De Wolf, E. D. & Isard, S. A. (2007). Disease cycle approach to plant disease prediction. Annual Review of Phytopathology, 203-220.

Hudler, G. (1998). Fungi as pathogens of food crops: Despair in ireland. Magical mushrooms, mischievous molds. Princeton University Press, 35-45.