Forecasting Disease Dynamics and Distributions in Changing Environments

Research during the past three decades has substantially increased our understanding of pathogens infecting humans and other species. Molecular advances have made it possible to test hypotheses regarding the role these pathogens play as ecological and evolutionary drivers of change, and have led to the understanding that parasites and infectious diseases are major contributors to the population dynamics and evolution of humans and animals. Working under this emerging understanding that infectious organisms and parasites shape the evolution of our species and others, scientists now are turning their attention to predicting how human activities change host-parasite associations, particularly in our most vulnerable human and animal populations. Dr. Charles Nunn, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Global Health, synthesizes massive phylogenetic datasets across studies and scales, to identify general principles for predicting disease emergence and to investigate how parasitism influences host diversification, including whether parasites drive host extinction or actually promote speciation. Many of Dr. Nunn’s research projects involve large-scale informatics datasets on mammalian parasites, with the aim to understand patterns of disease risk in natural systems and at the human-wildlife interface. Dr. Nunn also models the spread of infectious agents in wild populations, including the differences in contact across animals and humans based on knowledge of primate behavior and ecology. Finally, large datasets are being used to define ecological networks in Madagascar for insect vectors and the infectious agents they transmit to mammals in disturbed and undisturbed environments.

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