Wendy Turner, University at Albany – Understanding Why Anthrax Outbreaks Occur

On University at Albany Week: Why are some anthrax outbreaks worse than others?

Wendy Turner, assistant professor of biological sciences, looks at the factors that may lead to worse outbreaks.

Wendy Turner is an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University at Albany. She runs the Turner Lab, which conducts research into the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases with a focus on environmentally-transmitted and vector-borne parasites and pathogens.

Turner was awarded $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation for a four-year project to study anthrax transmission among African wildlife.

Understanding Why Anthrax Outbreaks Occur

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Anthrax, often known as an agent of bioterrorism, in its natural form is an ancient and deadly bacterial disease of herbivorous animals.  

One mystery about anthrax is why outbreaks are so different across the planet. In some areas outbreaks occur annually with few cases, while in other areas explosive outbreaks occur with decades or longer in between.

Because of its lifecycle—with short bursts of growth within a host followed by long dormant periods in soil as spores—Bacillus anthracis is a slowly evolving pathogen. In fact, isolates of B. anthracis from across the world are around 99.95% similar. Therefore, when it comes to understanding why anthrax has such different dynamics among locations, the pathogen tends to be treated as a constant, and the source of variation attributed to the uniqueness of the environment or the locally available host species.

My previous research on anthrax has shed light on which transmission pathways, host behaviors, and species drive anthrax dynamics in an ecosystem in Namibia. Now, my research group is comparing anthrax transmission dynamics in two ecosystems in southern Africa. Etosha National Park, Namibia and Kruger National Park, South Africa, share many of the same potential host species, and yet are very different in their anthrax outbreaks, and are representative of anthrax variation observed globally.

Our recent work indicates that the pathogen’s genetic diversity does change significantly over time in one location, but not the other; a finding that conflicts with expectations. We will conduct field and laboratory experiments, and observe host species in both ecosystems, in order to discover if the root cause of differences in anthrax can be attributed to specific ecological or evolutionary interactions.

Understanding the triggers of anthrax outbreaks among locations would facilitate the development of predictive tools to improve our risk management in affected areas.

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