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Ecological destruction fuels emerging diseases

. So far, he has found more than 5,000 different types of these often microscopic hangers-on and created one of the world's most comprehensive inventories of parasites. And, notably, more than two-thirds of these parasites are new to science.

But Dr. Brooks argues that the real work has only just begun. The researchers still have a very poor to non-existent understanding of the roles these thousands of parasites play in different diseases, something that will require a detailed understanding of their often complex multi-host life cycles.

"It's very difficult to link these things up," he says. "It's very time consuming to do that, but without that information we don't know how these parasites are transmitted."

And without basic systematics and taxonomic information about parasites, Dr. Brooks points out that we lack the ability to predict and thus prevent emerging parasitic diseases.

"Right now, we're just reacting out of ignorance whenever an unfamiliar disease catches us off guard and we call that management," says Dr. Brooks. "We're always behind the curve, because we don't know where these things are coming from."

In fact, while parasites like malaria are well known, we may have identified only a fraction of the total number of the world's parasites, and the prospect of cataloguing them poses a daunting technical challenge. Since the physical characteristics of many parasites are very similar, Dr. Brooks and his colleagues are using the latest molecular taxonomy tools to classify parasites based on genetic characteristics.

"These things are evolutionary accidents waiting to happen," he warns. "This is not something brand new ?it's something old. But in this case it's something that human beings are stimulating. These little evolutionary land mines are going to jump up and bite us."


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Source:NSERC


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