Distinguished Research Professor
University of Georgia
Biological diversity has long been used to measure ecological health. While evidence exists from many ecosystems that declines in host biodiversity may lead to greater risk of disease emergence, the role of pathogen diversity in the emergence process remains poorly understood. Particularly, because a more diverse pool of pathogen types provides more ways in which evolutionary innovations may arise, we suggest that host-pathogen systems with high pathogen diversity are more prone to disease emergence than systems with relatively homogeneous pathogen communities. We call this prediction the diversity-emergence hypothesis. To show how this hypothesis could be tested, we studied a system comprised of North American shorebirds and their associated low-pathogenicity avian influenza (LPAI) viruses. These viruses are important as a potential source of genetic innovations in influenza. A theoretical contribution of this study is an expression predicting the rate of viral subtype reassortment to be proportional to both prevalence and Simpson's Index, a formula that has been used traditionally to quantify biodiversity. We then estimated prevalence and subtype diversity in host species at Delaware Bay, a North American AIV hotspot, and used our model to extrapolate from these data. We estimated that 4 to 39 virus subtypes circulated at Delaware Bay each year between 2000 and 2008, and that surveillance coverage (percentage of co-circulating subtypes collected) at Delaware Bay is only about 63.0%. Simpson's Index in the same period varied more than fourfold from 0.22 to 0.93. These measurements together with the model provide an indirect, model-based estimate of the reassortment rate. A proper test of the diversity-emergence hypothesis would require these results to be joined to independent and reliable estimates of reassortment, perhaps obtained through molecular surveillance. These results suggest both that subtype diversity (and therefore reassortment) varies from year to year and that several subtypes contributing to reassortment are going undetected. The similarity between these results and more detailed studies of one host, ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), further suggests that this species may be the primary host for influenza reassortment at Delaware Bay. Biological diversity has long been quantified using Simpson's Index. Our model links this formula to a mechanistic account of reassortment in multipathogen systems in the form of subtype diversity at Delaware Bay, USA. As a theory of how pathogen diversity may influence the evolution of novel pathogens, this work is a contribution to the larger project of understanding the connections between biodiversity and disease.