Bridging taxonomic and disciplinary divides in infectious disease

Elizabeth T. Borer, Janis Antonovics, Linda L. Kinkel, Peter J. Hudson, Peter Daszak, Matthew J. Ferrari, Karen A. Garrett, Colin R. Parrish, Andrew F. Read, David M. Rizzo

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Pathogens traverse disciplinary and taxonomic boundaries, yet infectious disease research occurs in many separate disciplines including plant pathology, veterinary and human medicine, and ecological and evolutionary sciences. These disciplines have different traditions, goals, and terminology, creating gaps in communication. Bridging these disciplinary and taxonomic gaps promises novel insights and important synergistic advances in control of infectious disease. An approach integrated across the plant-animal divide would advance our understanding of disease by quantifying critical processes including transmission, community interactions, pathogen evolution, and complexity at multiple spatial and temporal scales. These advances require more substantial investment in basic disease research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)261-267
Number of pages7
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Translational science drawing on the opportunities outlined here will require investment in both basic and applied disease research. While the synergies available from examining disease across the plant-animal divide are recognized by some scientists and practitioners (Olsen et al. 2011), the funding agencies lag far behind. With few exceptions, the funds devoted to infectious disease research at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) are designated for specific problems associated with specific diseases. While research in closely defined areas is appropriate and should continue, it is remarkable that only a miniscule fraction of funding is available for basic disease research. For example, the Division of Allergy and Infectious disease at NIH receives a total annual budget of nearly $5,000 million (excluding programs dealing explicitly with AIDS), whereas the only program supporting research on infectious disease that is independent of the taxonomy of the study organism is entitled ‘‘Ecology of Infectious Disease.’’ This program is jointly funded by NIH and NSF in the region of only $15 million per year, to which NIH makes a contribution of about a third (less than 0.1% of the Allergy and Infectious Disease division funding at NIH). To date, there has been no contribution to this program from USDA, which itself does not support general research on infectious disease, even though approximately $70 million of the USDA budget is dedicated annually to research on specific plant diseases. It is critical that all agencies, especially NIH and USDA, strongly support basic research in ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, particularly recognizing the great potential insights promised by cross-disciplinary and cross-taxonomic research initiatives. Active calls for proposals that bridge the plant-animal-human divides and which integrate evolutionary and ecological theory into understanding the fundamental processes that are shared among infectious diseases would greatly stimulate important translational science. Such programs also would stimulate interactions among scientists who are constrained by the organism-specific, or disease-specific funding structures and programs.

Funding Information:
Many thanks to all of the participants in the NSF/NIH workshop, Frontiers of Research in Infectious Disease Ecology (April 2010) for ideas and stimulating discussion. We also thank the NSF/NIH Ecology of Infectious Disease program for supporting this workshop. Borer also received support from the University of Minnesota and NSF Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease grant DEB-1015805.


  • cross-species transmission
  • epidemics
  • invasive species
  • prediction
  • prevention
  • within-host dynamics


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