S. Reece & S. Stammers
S. Reece & S. Stammers

Infectious disease agents, like other organisms, can evolve by natural selection.  Strong immune responses that kill parasites within hosts, for example, can weed out those parasite strains that are especially vulnerable to immune attack.   And any mosquito-borne parasite strains that do not circulate at the right place and time to be picked up by a feeding mosquito will likewise be eliminated. But how do selection pressures operating within hosts and those operating on transmission between hosts jointly shape the evolution of infectious diseases? This apparently straightforward question has proven difficult to answer.

But how do selection pressures operating within hosts and those operating on transmission between hosts jointly shape the evolution of infectious diseases?

K. Paaijmans
Malaria sporozoites; K. Paaijmans

We must answer that question for a variety of infectious diseases if we are to tackle clinically important questions such as these:  Which medical interventions are least likely to select for drug resistance in malaria parasites?  How does immunopathology associated with humans’ innate immune response to influenza affect the population level dynamics of flu epidemics and pandemics?  Can vaccine-driven evolutionary pressure within hosts explain the resurgence of pertussis in developed countries such as the United States?

To address questions such as these, our NSF-funded Infectious Disease Evolution Across Scales (IDEAS) Research Collaboration Network (RCN) facilitates communication and collaboration between theoretical and empirical scientists and between biomedical researchers and evolutionary ecologists studying the infectious diseases at multiple biological scales (from molecules to populations).  IDEAS was conceived in an effort to bridge the gap between disciplines that ask fundamentally similar questions but with very different approaches.  We believe that joining forces will offer benefits of efficiency, greater accuracy and more rapid progress in multi-scale analysis of parasite evolution.

S. Reece & S. Stammers
Anopheles stephensi; S. Reece & S. Stammers

Our Aims:

1) Answer basic and applied questions in the evolutionary ecology of infectious diseases via an explicitly quantitative and cross-scale approach. Our work extracts maximal information from experimental data, tests evolutionary hypotheses, identifies key data gaps and proposes new experiments to close those gaps.  This leads to new scientific papers and new grant proposals as well as new public understanding of science.  We also aim to design “evolution proof” medical interventions that will maintain efficacy.

2) Develop a public repository for datasets with linked methods/tools for mathematical modeling and statistical analysis. This resource will allow others to validate and extend our work and will also provide detailed examples that we hope would inspire and inform analyses of other systems.

3) Create an archive of teaching modules to improve evolutionary biology education. This resource will be available to institutions who do not currently offer such coursework as well as those who do but may benefit from improving their existing curricula at the interface of evolutionary biology and biomedicine.

Our Activities:   We will achieve these aims with a combination of Research Exchanges, Workshops, and Developed Resources.

Please note that we share the IDEAS acronym with the University of Georgia’s Interdisciplinary Disease Ecology Across Scales, an NSF-supported research traineeship program aimed to train PhD students in new ways to solve infectious disease problems occurring at the interface of different scales of biological organization. While we are working toward a common cause, our programs are distinct.
Click here to learn more about Odum School of Ecology’s program