Diversity Diverts Disease

Biodiversity is of utmost benefit to human health

(RxWiki News) Biodiversity is beneficial to human health, both as a source of therapeutic agents and as a safeguard against infectious disease.

According to a study recently published in the journal Nature, the link between biodiversity and infectious diseases is stronger than previously thought. 

Through funding from the National Science Foundation, researchers discovered that the organisms most likely to disappear as biodiversity declines are those that keep disease-causing pathogens at bay. The remaining species, whether they be pathogen or host, tend to be those that intensify the spread of disease. 

A common example of this pattern is the case of Lyme disease. According to co-author Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, "Strongly buffering species like the opossum are lost when forests are fragmented, but white-footed mice thrive. The mice increase numbers of both the blacklegged tick vector and the pathogen that causes Lyme disease."

The current worldwide decline in biodiversity, largely due to disappearing habitats, is marked by extinction rates that are 100 to 1,000 times higher than in past epochs, and are projected to rise substantially over the next 50 years.

According to co-author Andrew Dobson of Princeton University, issues interrelated with biodiversity decline (e.g. human population growth and land-use change to support agriculture) can further encourage the spread of infectious diseases to humans. "When biological diversity declines," says Dobson, "and contact with humans increases, you have a perfect recipe for infectious disease." Consequently, the authors of this study call for careful monitoring of areas with large quantities of domesticated animals. Doing so, says co-author Felicia Keesing from Bard College, "would reduce the likelihood of an infectious disease jumping from wildlife to livestock, then to humans."

Biodiversity decline also affects the future of medicine. Throughout the history of medical research, plants, animals, and microbes have provided scientists with a plethora of treatments for human diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, malaria, Parkinson's disease, inflammatory disorders, high blood pressure, as well as bacterial, fungal, and viral infections. As species die off with the general decline of biodiversity in the world, possible advances in pharmacology and medicine die with them.

In order for humans to remain healthy and disease free, we need a world with its biodiversity thriving. A diverse world not only reduces the spread of infectious disease but also gives us the tools we need to fight those diseases that we do contract.

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Review Date: 
December 1, 2010