Infectious disease experts join forces, host global meeting

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Melissa Osgood
Diseased salamander
Frank Pasmans/Provided
A salamander with skin lesions caused by Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, a pathogenic fungus that infects salamanders and newts and has recently spread from Southeast Asia into Europe.

In recent years, Cornell has amassed an impressive stable of experts in an emerging field for modern times: the ecology and evolution of infectious disease.

Cornell infectious disease researchers span the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine, Arts and Sciences, and Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. They trade insights across disciplines while chipping away at questions on diseases affecting humans, plants and domestic and wild animals, as well as on disease evolution and transmission.

Over the last 15 years Cornell faculty in the field have operated as a working group, with graduate students who meet for a weekly journal club to read and discuss papers from primary journals.

“We’re a little under the radar but it’s a group that has been working together for a long time,” said Brian Lazzaro, a professor of entomology whose work addresses the genomics of immune responses under different environmental conditions.

With the field gaining prominence, the colleges have pledged funds for continued research and the group has just revamped its website.

Many of these experts – along with researchers from other institutions – will showcase their findings this week at the 14th annual International Conference on Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease, on Cornell’s Ithaca campus, June 3-5. This is the third year, including 2007 and 2010, that Cornell has hosted the conference.

The study of infectious diseases has particular relevance for our times as humans have become a force, altering the planet’s land, water and atmosphere, all of which puts pressure on organisms and increases disease risk.

“When you challenge an animal with changing environments and climate changes, what are the tipping points? And what are organisms going to do when confronted with new diseases?” asked Kelly Zamudio, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and an expert on an amphibian-killing fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) that has decimated amphibians globally. “We [humans] are changing the world, and understanding how changing environments affect the ability of organisms to respond is a big part of disease ecology.”

Said Lazzaro, chair of the conference organizing committee, “Disease epidemics can disrupt ecosystem health, threaten endangered species, impose financial cost through spread into agricultural systems, and threaten human public health via the emergence of zoonoses [diseases transferred from animals to humans].”

At this year’s meeting, 370 researchers from Europe, South America and the United States will share results in four thematic areas:

  • Polymicrobial infection and disease: In natural systems, multiple infections from different organisms almost always occur simultaneously in a host. The session will examine how those infections interact and how the outcome of infection changes when there are two infections at once.
  • Pathogen dynamics within the host: The study of what a pathogen does inside a host.
  • Pathogen genomics, evolution and selective constraints: What keeps pathogens from being infinitely infectious? This session looks at how pathogens work and what factors and trade-offs limit pathogens.
  • Disease outbreaks on the landscape scale: The study of broader ecological epidemiology across landscapes, including marine landscapes, where rising ocean temperatures are making organisms such as coral, starfish and lobsters more susceptible to disease, for example.

Graduate students have played a major role in the conference planning this year, selecting 19 speakers from the authors of more than 200 abstracts, and they will moderate the sessions. Also, more than 200 posters will be presented.

“This community of researchers emphasizes public health, disease and wildlife systems, and ecosystem dynamics in the context of climate change, all of which are major Cornell priorities,” Lazzaro said.

The conference is supported by sponsors including the Atkinson Center, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, and the Colleges Arts and Sciences, Veterinary Medicine, and Agriculture and Life Sciences.


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Krishna Ramanujan