Infectious Diseases

Our scientists are working to understand how environmental conditions influence infectious disease risk. In today's rapidly changing world, protecting human health requires an ecosystem-based approach to monitoring and addressing emerging infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.


Our Work

Cary Institute visitors often encounter researchers in white coveralls. Their suits help prevent unwanted tick bites while they investigate the ecological conditions that regulate Lyme disease risk. As human populations move into suburban and rural environments, encounters with infected black-legged ticks have increased. In the Northeast, Dutchess County has one of the highest human infection rates.

Research conducted at the Cary Institute has correlated the prevalence of infected black-legged ticks with land use and biodiversity loss. When the landscape is highly fragmented and white-footed mice dominate, human risk increases. In intact landscapes with a diversity of animals, such as opossum and fox, human risk declines. This is because non-mouse hosts are less likely to transfer Lyme disease to ticks.

An analogous finding is seen in West Nile virus research. Infection is most common in developed areas, where blue jays and crows dominate local bird populations (the virus is amplified in their bodies). In less developed areas, where the native bird fauna is more diverse, human risk decreases.

The “dilution effect” has applications to other infectious disease systems and highlights the importance of species protection in land-use planning.

Highlighted Projects

The Tick Project

The Tick Project is testing whether environmental interventions can prevent tick-borne diseases in our communities. The need for prevention is stronger than ever, with expanding tick populations and more than 300,000 Americans diagnosed with Lyme disease each year.

Machine Learning to Predict Zoonotic Disease

Why do the majority of human infectious diseases originate from wildlife? Our lab seeks to identify intrinsic characteristics of wild species (e.g., life history, ecological, physiological traits) that signal their potential to be future reservoirs of zoonotic diseases (human diseases with animal origins).

Ecological Complexity, Mosquito Production, and Disease Risk

Over the past 50 years, many regions across the globe have experienced a (re)emergence of mosquito-vectored diseases, both due to novel pathogens and those previously eradicated. 

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