NCEAS Product 14060

Altizer, Sonia; Harvell, Drew; Friedle, Elizabeth. 2003. Rapid evolutionary dynamics and disease threats to biodiversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Vol: 18(11). Pages 589-596. (Abstract) (Online version)


Existing and emerging pathogens pose unusual challenges for conservation because of their potential to drive rapid changes in the numerical abundance and genetic composition of wild host populations. An increasing number of studies indicate that host genetic diversity plays an important role in buffering populations against widespread epidemics, and that parasites represent powerful selective agents in natural populations. The observation that infectious diseases might be both mitigated by and rapidly change the genetic composition of host populations gives new significance to the role of host genetic diversity in species conservation. Less clear is the role that pathogen evolutionary change plays in the emergence and spread of new diseases, but recent examples indicate that humans might be selecting unknowingly for rapid changes in pathogen biology through habitat fragmentation, climate shifts and environmental pollution. Although the risks they pose to endangered species are apparent, pathogens and other natural enemies can be a driving force behind species and genetic diversity in natural populations, and preserving interacting networks of coevolving populations should enable hosts to respond better to future disease threats.