Scientists receive research grant to study climate change impacts on vector-borne diseases

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new 5 year multi-institutional collaborative research grant of $1.85 million funded by the National Science Foundation’s Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (NSF EEID) program will support research on the effect of temperature on 13 different diseases transmitted by insects. It will also measure the capacity for two common disease-carrying mosquitoes in the Americas to adapt to new (or changing) temperatures.

Many of the world’s most devastating and neglected infectious diseases are spread to people by mosquitoes and other insects. Malaria, a mosquito-transmitted parasite, kills over 650,000 people each year. Dengue fever, an incurable mosquito-borne disease caused by the dengue virus, infects around 400 million people annually, a rate which has grown dramatically in recent decades. With limited options for medical treatment or vaccination, preventing infection is the best way to control these diseases. This approach requires understanding—and predicting—how the climate affects mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.

“If we want to predict the spread of mosquito-transmitted diseases, we have to learn how these insects and pathogens respond to the environment and changing climate,” says Dr. Sadie Ryan, Assistant Professor of Medical Geography at the University of Florida and co-principal investigator on the project. “We will improve on our existing predictive models by validating them with real data. Integrating field data on local conditions with mapped model predictions will enable us to understand the multiscalar dynamics of climate-disease relationships.”

Dr. Ryan (UF) and Dr. Anna Stewart Ibarra, Assistant Professor of Medicine at SUNY-Upstate Medical University will launch a new field project component in Ecuador. They will be adding new sites to their previous collaborative research on climate-dengue dynamics, starting the first of five years supported under this grant, with the onset of the coming dengue season.

“This is a critical component of the research,” says Dr. Stewart Ibarra, leader of the Ecuador field team. “Testing new and existing models on the ground in dengue-endemic areas will be a big step towards improving the science behind vector control and public health.”

The collaborative research team includes experts in epidemiology, public health, ecology, entomology, mathematical modeling, and geography: co-principal investigator Sadie Ryan (University of Florida), lead investigator Erin Mordecai (Stanford University), Anna Stewart Ibarra (SUNY Upstate Medical University), Matt Thomas (Penn State University), Leah Johnson and Jason Rohr (University of South Florida), Van Savage (UCLA), Marco Neira (Catholic University of Quito), and other collaborators in Ecuador. The work expands upon Dr. Ryan’s prior work at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Center for Global Health & Translational Science at SUNY-Upstate Medical University.

The team will begin work this year to develop temperature-sensitive transmission models and fit them with data from published sources for 13 vector-borne diseases: vivax malaria, trypanosomiasis, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, West Nile, Eastern equine encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, St. Louis encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Ockelbo (Sindbis) disease, Ross River fever, and bluetongue. By studying this suite of diseases, the team hopes to uncover general patterns of temperature responses across multiple insects and pathogens.

See the NSF press release for more information on the newly funded projects in the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases Program, a joint program of the U.S. National Science Foundation, U.S. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.