What can ants teach us about the transmission and spread of human disease? Perhaps a lot, according to a team of researchers who recently received a grant of more than $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation to explore this question.
David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State, is the lead on the five-year project, which is funded under the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases research initiative, a joint program of NSF and the National Institutes of Health.
The project was one of only a handful funded from among about 100 proposals.
"Living in societies affects how diseases transmit," said Hughes, who also is a faculty affiliate of Penn State's Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. "We need to understand the role of group size, group complexity and connectedness in driving infectious disease transmission so that we can reduce the heavy burden that infectious diseases impose."
The ant model presents an ideal system to study disease transmission, Hughes explained. "They live in high-density groups, they are ecologically dominant and they have evolved mechanisms to mitigate the spread of infectious disease that humans can only marvel at."
To accomplish its objectives, the team will expose groups of ants to a variety of agents, both beneficial and virulent, Hughes noted. "We first will establish baseline patterns for scaling of transmission as a generic process," he said. "We want to determine the basic rules that govern the mathematical biology of disease transmission."
The researchers then will experiment with changing the background conditions in which the ants live. "Does transmission of these diverse agents happen at the same rate when there are 100 ants compared to 10,000?" Hughes said. "Or does it happen when all are crowded in one space compared to being spread across 20 or 30 compartments?"
Understanding the mathematical biology of tran
|Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer|