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Why does disease increase as biodiversity declines?

May 05, 2014

Why does disease increase as biodiversity declines?

Julian Schmid catches about four times as many spiny rats on the islands of Panama’s Barro Colorado Nature Monument than he does on the reserve’s equally protected peninsula

Julian Schmid catches about four times as many spiny rats on the islands of Panama’s Barro Colorado Nature Monument than he does on the reserve’s equally protected peninsulas. This is symptomatic of habitat fragments like islands — biodiversity drops but the abundance of some creatures goes up.

This has implications for the health of both ecosystems and humans. Less diversity in forest fragments — whether surrounded by water, farmland or development — can lead to an increase in the prevalence of disease among the creatures that remain. These include illnesses that are transmitted to humans from animals, which are known as zoonotic diseases.

Schmid, a Ph.D. student at Germany’s University of Ulm, is investigating the role genetic diversity plays in this uptick. While isolated populations have greater numbers, their genetic variability decreases from inbreeding. Schmid expects spiny rat islanders to have less diversity in an essential group of immunesystem genes.

“By altering the landscape and thereby gene flow, you might decrease the variability of this gene complex,” said Schmid, after taking samples of blood and prickly hair from spiny rats on Orchid Island.

Schmid, whose work is part of a larger research project funded by the German Research Foundation, hopes to directly correlate variability in immune relevant genes with gut parasite load, microbiome diversity and neglected tropical disease.

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