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  1. Environmental factors are common forces driving infectious disease dynamics. We compared inter-annual and seasonal patterns of anthrax infections in two multi-host systems in southern Africa: Etosha National Park, Namibia, and Kruger National Park, South Africa. Using several decades of mortality data from each system, we assessed possible transmission mechanisms behind anthrax dynamics, examining 1) within- and between-species temporal case correlations, and 2) associations between anthrax mortalities and environmental factors, specifically rainfall and the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), with empirical dynamic modeling. Anthrax cases in Kruger had wide inter-annual variation in case numbers, and large outbreaks seemed to follow roughlymore »a decadal cycle. In contrast, outbreaks in Etosha were smaller in magnitude and occurred annually. In Etosha, the host species commonly affected remained consistent over several decades, although plains zebra (Equus quagga) became relatively more dominant. In Kruger, turnover of the main host species occurred after the 1990s, where the previously dominant host species, greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), was replaced by impala (Aepyceros melampus). In both parks, anthrax infections showed two seasonal peaks, with each species having only one peak in a year. Zebra, springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) and impala cases peaked in wet seasons, while elephant (Loxodonta africana), kudu and buffalo (Syncerus caffer) cases peaked in dry seasons. For common host species shared between the two parks, anthrax mortalities peaked in the same season in both systems. Among host species with cases peaking in the same season, anthrax mortalities were mostly synchronized, which may imply similar transmission mechanisms or shared sources of exposure. Between seasons, outbreaks in one species may contribute to more cases in another species in the following season. Higher vegetation greenness was associated with more zebra and springbok anthrax mortalities in Etosha, but fewer elephant cases in Kruger. These results suggest that host behavioral responses to changing environmental conditions may affect anthrax transmission risk, with differences in transmission mechanisms leading to multi-host biseasonal outbreaks. This study reveals the dynamics and potential environmental drivers of anthrax in two savanna systems, providing a better understanding of factors driving biseasonal dynamics and outbreak variation among locations.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available April 8, 2023
  2. Exposure and immunity to generalist pathogens differ among host species and vary across spatial scales. Anthrax, caused by a multi-host bacterial pathogen, Bacillus anthracis , is enzootic in Kruger National Park (KNP), South Africa and Etosha National Park (ENP), Namibia. These parks share many of the same potential host species, yet the main anthrax host in one (greater kudu ( Tragelaphus strepsiceros ) in KNP and plains zebra ( Equus quagga ) in ENP) is only a minor host in the other. We investigated species and spatial patterns in anthrax mortalities, B. anthracis exposure, and the ability to neutralize themore »anthrax lethal toxin to determine if observed host mortality differences between locations could be attributed to population-level variation in pathogen exposure and/or immune response. Using serum collected from zebra and kudu in high and low incidence areas of each park (18- 20 samples/species/area), we estimated pathogen exposure from anti-protective antigen (PA) antibody response using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and lethal toxin neutralization with a toxin neutralization assay (TNA). Serological evidence of pathogen exposure followed mortality patterns within each system (kudus: 95% positive in KNP versus 40% in ENP; zebras: 83% positive in ENP versus 63% in KNP). Animals in the high-incidence area of KNP had higher anti-PA responses than those in the low-incidence area, but there were no significant differences in exposure by area within ENP. Toxin neutralizing ability was higher for host populations with lower exposure prevalence, i.e., higher in ENP kudus and KNP zebras than their conspecifics in the other park. These results indicate that host species differ in their exposure to and adaptive immunity against B. anthracis in the two parks. These patterns may be due to environmental differences such as vegetation, rainfall patterns, landscape or forage availability between these systems and their interplay with host behavior (foraging or other risky behaviors), resulting in differences in exposure frequency and dose, and hence immune response.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available February 14, 2023
  3. Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax disease, is a worldwide threat to livestock, wildlife and public health. While analyses of genetic data from across the globe have increased our understanding of this bacterium’s population genomic structure, the influence of selective pressures on this successful pathogen is not well understood. In this study, we investigate the effects of antimicrobial resistance, phage diversity, geography and isolation source in shaping population genomic structure. We also identify a suite of candidate genes potentially under selection, driving patterns of diversity across 356 globally extant B. anthracis genomes. We report ten antimicrobial resistance genes andmore »11 different prophage sequences, resulting in the first large-scale documentation of these genetic anomalies for this pathogen. Results of random forest classification suggest genomic structure may be driven by a combination of antimicrobial resistance, geography and isolation source, specific to the population cluster examined. We found strong evidence that a recombination event linked to a gene involved in protein synthesis may be responsible for phenotypic differences between comparatively disparate populations. We also offer a list of genes for further examination of B. anthracis evolution, based on high-impact single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and clustered mutations. The information presented here sheds new light on the factors driving genomic structure in this notorious pathogen and may act as a road map for future studies aimed at understanding functional differences in terms of B. anthracis biogeography, virulence and evolution.« less
  4. Disease outbreaks are a consequence of interactions among the three components of a host–parasite system: the infectious agent, the host and the environment. While virulence and transmission are widely investigated, most studies of parasite life-history trade-offs are conducted with theoretical models or tractable experimental systems where transmission is standardized and the environment controlled. Yet, biotic and abiotic environmental factors can strongly affect disease dynamics, and ultimately, host–parasite coevolution. Here, we review research on how environmental context alters virulence–transmission relationships, focusing on the off-host portion of the parasite life cycle, and how variation in parasite survival affects the evolution of virulencemore »and transmission. We review three inter-related ‘approaches’ that have dominated the study of the evolution of virulence and transmission for different host–parasite systems: (i) evolutionary trade-off theory, (ii) parasite local adaptation and (iii) parasite phylodynamics. These approaches consider the role of the environment in virulence and transmission evolution from different angles, which entail different advantages and potential biases. We suggest improvements to how to investigate virulence–transmission relationships, through conceptual and methodological developments and taking environmental context into consideration. By combining developments in life-history evolution, phylogenetics, adaptive dynamics and comparative genomics, we can improve our understanding of virulence–transmission relationships across a diversity of host–parasite systems that have eluded experimental study of parasite life history.« less
  5. When a transmission hotspot for an environmentally persistent pathogen establishes in otherwise high-quality habitat, the disease may exert a strong impact on a host population. However, fluctuating environmental conditions lead to heterogeneity in habitat quality and animal habitat preference, which may interrupt the overlap between selected and risky habitats. We evaluated spatio-temporal patterns in anthrax mortalities in a plains zebra ( Equus quagga ) population in Etosha National Park, Namibia, incorporating remote-sensing and host telemetry data. A higher proportion of anthrax mortalities of herbivores was detected in open habitats than in other habitat types. Resource selection functions showed that themore »zebra population shifted habitat selection in response to changes in rainfall and vegetation productivity. Average to high rainfall years supported larger anthrax outbreaks, with animals congregating in preferred open habitats, while a severe drought forced animals into otherwise less preferred habitats, leading to few anthrax mortalities. Thus, the timing of anthrax outbreaks was congruent with preference for open plains habitats and a corresponding increase in pathogen exposure. Given shifts in habitat preference, the overlap in high-quality habitat and high-risk habitat is intermittent, reducing the adverse consequences for the population.« less