A team of international researchers that includes those from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame has been honored with the George Mercer Award from the Ecological Society of America.
Jason Rohr, the Ludmilla F., Stephen J., and Robert T. Galla College Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences was the principal investigator of a team of collaborators around the United States and Tanzania who studied the transmission potential of schistosomiasis. Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by a parasitic worm transmitted from snail intermediate hosts to humans in mostly tropical and subtropical parts of the world, with 90 percent of infections occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease is second only to malaria in its global impact among parasitic diseases.
The paper for which the award is based was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February 2022.
The team used a combination of theoretical modeling, small-scale controlled experiments, and field surveys to understand how the disease spreads. The research showed there is a relationship between snail densities and parasite stages that infect humans: Parasite production is low when there are few snail intermediate hosts, but it is also low when snail densities are high because there is not as much food available.
“Thus, each snail only has enough energy to stay alive and little to no energy left for parasite production,” Rohr said. “This phenomenon can cause schistosomiasis control programs to backfire, because reducing snails can increase per capita food resources and increase parasite production.”
The George Mercer award was established in 1948 and is given annually for an outstanding ecological research paper published within the past two years by a younger researcher. David J. Civitello, assistant professor of biology at Emory University, was first author on the paper, and is Rohr’s former postdoctoral researcher.
“I am so proud of him for spearheading this work. It provides a powerful cross-scale test of individual-based theory for infection dynamics at the community scale by integrating modeling, a mesocosm experiment, and field data – the holy grail of ecology,” Rohr said. “I am honored to be a part of this work and to receive this award,” Rohr said.
In addition to Rohr and Civiletto, other collaborators were Teckla Angelo, Moses Paul Mahalila, Jenitha Augustine Charles, and Safari M. Kinung’hi of the National Institute for Medical Research, Tanzania; L.M. Bradley, Karena H. Nguyen and Naima C. Starkloff of Emory University; Rachel B. Hartman of Johns Hopkins University, Andres Felipe Manrique, of the University of Florida, Bryan K. Delius, Duquesne University, Roger M. Nisbet, University of California, Santa Barbara,