Public Release:  Scientists explore the intersection of health, society and microbial ecology

Ecological research on disease prevention and the human biome to be featured at ESA's 2011 Annual Meeting in Austin

Ecological Society of America

Public awareness about the role and interaction of microbes is essential for promoting human and environmental health, say scientists presenting research at the Ecological Society of America's (ESA) 96th Annual Meeting from August 7-12, 2011. Researchers shed light on the healthy microbes of the human body, the prevention of mosquito-borne diseases in cities and the most effective approach to preventing E. coli contamination of food. Here is just some of the research on microbial and disease ecology to be presented at ESA's 2011 meeting in Austin, Texas:

Presentations on microbial ecology include:

"The food-webs inside the human body" led by Carmen Lia Murall, University of Guelph, Canada; "Human oral microbiota as an example of microbiota diversity associated with tissue characteristics" by Jacques Izard, The Forsyth Institute, Cambridge, MA; "The impact of architectural design on the microbial diversity of built environments" led by Brendan Bohannan, University of Oregon; and "A microbial perspective on air quality: How human activities influence bacterial diversity in the atmosphere" by Noah Fierer, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Standing water and mosquito breeding in cities

Reducing mosquito populations, and the diseases they sometimes carry, in cities can be as simple as dumping out standing water on private property. However, not everyone is aware that standing water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes--and some urban residents are unmotivated to dump the water even if they are aware. Zara Dowling from the University of Maryland and colleagues administered questionnaires to 242 urban households in the summer of 2010 to examine the relationship between knowledge of standing water and mosquito-borne diseases, the motivation of residents to remove mosquito breeding sites from their property, numbers and species of mosquitoes present on the property and the socioeconomic status of residents.

The researchers found that 54 percent of surveyed households were positive for mosquitoes, with the Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, and the common house mosquito, Culex pipiens, being the dominant species; both of these species are known vectors of West Nile virus. However, while knowledge of mosquito-borne disease and mosquito breeding sites was higher among upper-income households than middle-income households, lower-income households and neighborhoods showed greater overall concern about mosquito biting and mosquito-borne disease.

"High general knowledge of mosquitoes and concern about mosquito biting were not sufficient to encourage residents to dump standing water, and even in yards where residents did empty containers, there were still many mosquito breeding sites," said Dowling. "Existing knowledge, motivation and practices are not enough for controlling larval mosquitoes, and aerial spraying for adult mosquitoes carries environmental and health risks. Residents could benefit from community-based education campaigns that include detailed information regarding the types of containers that can hold standing water and the frequency with which they should be emptied to help prevent mosquito-borne illness."

The presentation "Linking resident knowledge, attitudes and practices regarding mosquitoes to socioeconomic factors and vector control," led by Zara Dowling from the University of Maryland, will be held Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm during the "Ecosystem Management" contributed oral session.

Other presentations on disease ecology include:

"Statistical prediction of West Nile Virus transmission intensity in New York City" led by Sarah Bowden, University of Georgia; "The dual role of lizards in Lyme disease ecology in the far-western United States" led by Andrea Swei, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; "The role of synanthropic mammals in avian influenza outbreaks" led by Susan Shriner, National Wildlife Research Center, Fort Collins, Colorado; "The influence of host movement on epidemic dynamics: Commuting patterns in cities and their consequences for the spread of influenza" led by Benjamin Dalziel, Cornell University; and "The ecology of an emerging tick-borne pathogen, Babesia microti: How host quality affects disease risk" led by Michelle Hersh, Bard College.

Understanding E. coli outbreaks in food production

In 1996, an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7, traced to processed bagged spinach, led to changes in farming practices in California, including the adoption of eradication measures for certain wildlife that were perceived by salad processing companies to be sources of E. coli. However, according to Diana Stuart of Michigan State University, scientific literature and recent studies indicate that wildlife rarely carry E. coli O157:H7. Through 130 personal interviews and a mail survey conducted in the Central Coast region of California, she discovered that widespread outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 may be linked to industrial agricultural practices and the design of salad processing systems.

"We cannot fully understand outbreaks of foodborne illness without examining the complex relationships between humans and microbes in food production systems," said Diana Stuart. "In this case, farmers and wildlife were blamed for an outbreak, while industrial production designs that may foster the emergence and spread of pathogenic bacteria remain largely unaddressed. We cannot address outbreaks unless we examine the connections between humans and microbes in food systems. Therefore, as a social scientist, I must engage microbial ecology in my analysis."

The presentation "Bringing microbial ecology into the social sciences," by Diana Stuart from Michigan State University, will be held Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 9:50 am during the "Micro-Managing the Planet: Integrating Microbial Ecology and Earth Stewardship" symposium.

Other presentations related to medicine and nutrition include:

"Selenium accumulation in flowers and the associated implications for ecology, evolution and fortified foods" led by Colin Quinn, Colorado State University; "Assessment of water quality and benthic macroinvertebrate community at a wastewater receiving constructed wetland in El Paso, Texas" by Jennifer Martinez, University of Texas at El Paso; "Socio-ecological production system of forests in the Roviana, Solomon Islands: Villagers' resources uses and vegetation diversity" by Takuro Furusawa, Kyoto University, Japan; and "Key challenges facing conservation medicine" by Felicia Keesing, Bard College.

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ESA's 96th Annual Meeting will be held August 7-12, 2011 in Austin, Texas. The meeting, which has the theme "Earth Stewardship: Preserving and enhancing the earth's life-support systems," draws a critical combination of more than 3,500 scientists, policy makers and concerned citizens to discuss research on Earth's complex interactions and to explore strategies for enhancing a community-based approach to global responsibility.

The Preliminary Press Program is available online at http://esa.org/austin/press.php, and the full searchable program is at http://eco.confex.com/eco/2011/webprogram/start.html. All abstracts are embargoed until 12:00 am EDT the day of their presentation. Contact Katie Kline at katie@esa.org for details or to register as a member of the press. Field trips are open to all meeting registrants; however, the fees are not included in press registration.

The Ecological Society of America is the world's largest professional organization of ecologists, representing 10,000 scientists in the United States and around the globe. Since its founding in 1915, ESA has promoted the responsible application of ecological principles to the solution of environmental problems through ESA reports, journals, research, and expert testimony to Congress. ESA publishes four print journals--and one online-only, open-access journal Ecosphere--and convenes an annual scientific conference. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org or find experts in ecological science at http://www.esa.org/pao/rrt.

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