Toward an integrative molecular approach to wildlife disease
Pathogens pose serious threats to human health, agricultural investment, and biodiversity conservation through the emergence of zoonoses, spillover to domestic livestock, and epizootic outbreaks. As such, wildlife managers are often tasked with mitigating the negative effects of disease. Yet, parasites form a major component of biodiversity that often persist. This is due to logistical challenges of implementing management strategies and to insufficient understanding of host–parasite dynamics. We advocate for an inclusive understanding of molecular diversity in driving parasite infection and variable host disease states in wildlife systems. More specifically, we examine the roles of genetic, epigenetic, and commensal microbial variation in disease pathogenesis. These include mechanisms underlying parasite virulence and host resistance and tolerance, and the development, regulation, and parasite subversion of immune pathways, among other processes. Case studies of devil facial tumor disease in Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) and chytridiomycosis in globally distributed amphibians exemplify the broad range of questions that can be addressed by examining different facets of molecular diversity. For particularly complex systems, integrative molecular analyses present a promising frontier that can provide critical insights necessary to elucidate disease dynamics operating across scales. These insights enable more accurate risk assessment, reconstruction of transmission pathways, discernment of optimal intervention strategies, and development of more effective and ecologically sound treatments that minimize damage to the host population and environment. Such measures are crucial when mitigating threats posed by wildlife disease to humans, domestic animals, and species of conservation concern.
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