Environmentally transmitted diseases are comparatively poorly understood and managed, and their ecology is particularly understudied. Here we identify challenges of studying environmental transmission and persistence with a six-sided interdisciplinary review of the biology of anthrax (Bacillus anthracis). Anthrax is a zoonotic disease capable of maintaining infectious spore banks in soil for decades (or even potentially centuries), and the mechanisms of its environmental persistence have been the topic of significant research and controversy. Where anthrax is endemic, it plays an important ecological role, shaping the dynamics of entire herbivore communities. The complex eco-epidemiology of anthrax, and the mysterious biology of Bacillus anthracis during its environmental stage, have necessitated an interdisciplinary approach to pathogen research. Here, we illustrate different disciplinary perspectives through key advances made by researchers working in Etosha National Park, a long-term ecological research site in Namibia that has exemplified the complexities of the enzootic process of anthrax over decades of surveillance. In Etosha, the role of scavengers and alternative routes (waterborne transmission and flies) has proved unimportant relative to the long-term persistence of anthrax spores in soil and their infection of herbivore hosts. Carcass deposition facilitates green-ups of vegetation to attract herbivores, potentially facilitated by the role of anthrax spores in the rhizosphere. The underlying seasonal pattern of vegetation, and herbivores' immune and behavioural responses to anthrax risk, interact to produce regular 'anthrax seasons' that appear to be a stable feature of the Etosha ecosystem. Through the lens of microbiologists, geneticists, immunologists, ecologists, epidemiologists, and clinicians, we discuss how anthrax dynamics are shaped at the smallest scale by population genetics and interactions within the bacterial communities up to the broadest scales of ecosystem structure. We illustrate the benefits and challenges of this interdisciplinary approach to disease ecology, and suggest ways anthrax might offer insights into the biology of other important pathogens. Bacillus anthracis, and the more recently emerged Bacillus cereus biovar anthracis, share key features with other environmentally transmitted pathogens, including several zoonoses and panzootics of special interest for global health and conservation efforts. Understanding the dynamics of anthrax, and developing interdisciplinary research programs that explore environmental persistence, is a critical step forward for understanding these emerging threats.
Carlson CJ, Getz WM, Kausrud KL, Cizauskas CA, Blackburn JK, Bustos Carrillo FA, Colwell R, Easterday WR, Ganz HH, Kamath PL, Økstad OA, Turner WC, Kolstø AB, Stenseth NC. (2018). Spores and soil from six sides: interdisciplinarity and the environmental biology of anthrax (Bacillus anthracis). Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 93(4)