Thursday, May 24, 2018
Research on the fundamentals of infectious disease is at the intersection between important health concerns and understanding primary forces driving ecological diversity in natural populations. Our investigations use a naturally occurring disease of wild alpine flowers, which present opportunities to study the spread of infections in a safe and experimentally tractable system. The "anther-smut disease" replaces pollen of the flower with pathogenic spores, and this somewhat silly name belies an impact on par with the infamous black death, affecting nearly a third of all host individuals and causing complete, lifetime sterility. We are working to determine how the disease spreads by a mixture of dispersal modes, via sexual transmission (the botanical analogy) and by contact between individuals in close proximity. These interactions parallel the discovery of mixed transmission mode of some of the most alarming epidemics of recent history, and we aim to reveal the basic ecological and evolutionary consequences that have relevance across diverse types of diseases.