Computer graphic of a bacteria cell

We study the population ecology and evolution of parasites to understand the distribution and determinants of disease, potential for outbreaks, and transmission patterns. Researchers within the Centre harness a variety of genomic data including Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) on micro-organisms to understand the genomic epidemiology of disease systems. Large scale sequencing underpins improved understanding of the origins and  evolutionary history of pathogens.

The following provides several examples of disease systems and applications studied by researchers within the Centre:

  • The control of cattle TB in the UK is made considerably more difficult due to the transmission of Mycobacterium bovis from badgers (Meles meles). The ecology of badgers is complex with badgers living in social groups and in undisturbed populations keeping mainly to the group’s territory. In a simple disease system, badger culling might be expected to straightforwardly reduce transmission through the reduction of badger density. However, due to the complexity of badger social structure and ranging behaviour, unculled badgers remaining in areas subjected to culling range more widely potentially transmitting infection to badgers and cattle over a wider spatial scale.  Thus, badger ecology is key to understanding the multi-species transmission system and designing disease control strategies.
  • Eukaryotic pathogens are responsible for some of the worst diseases ever confronted. We have a special focus on fungi, where international trade is leading to not only the global emergence of highly virulent lineages but also the widespread evolution of multidrug resistance. Through the use of WGS we are mapping the spatiotemporal origins of pathogenic fungal lineages that are leading to biodiversity loss (for instance chytrids infecting amphibians) and the breakdown of entire classes of frontline antifungal drugs (for instance Aspergillus fumigatus evolving resistance to triazole antifungals). These disease systems are showing that we need to take emerging fungal infections much more seriously than had been previously thought.
  • Another major focus is bacteria causing infections in humans. Some of these pathogens originate from environmental or animal reservoirs, for example the foodborne pathogens Campylobacter jejuni and Salmonella enterica, so that our aim is to better understand the main sources and routes of transmission to humans. Others infect exclusively humans but the factors involved in person-to-person transmission are not always fully known, for example the stomach bug Helicobacter pylori or the hospital-associated Clostridium difficile. For all of these pathogens a combination of traditional epidemiology and WGS can help us learn more about the way they spread and formulate proposals for limiting their burden to public health.
  • Large-scale sequencing and phylogenetic analysis of fast-evolving viruses such as Ebola virus, Polio virus, Influenza virus, and HIV have been used to gain new understanding of epidemic origins and transmission patterns. Researchers within the Centre develop new methods and software to derive epidemiological insights from rapidly expanding viral sequence databases.  Studies of virus evolution have shed light on sources of infection (who infected whom),  risk factors for transmission, epidemic history and geographic dispersal.

Academic staff