Traditionally, we have categorised biology into distinct areas such as disease, genetics, evolution, ecology. Yet in reality, biology is rarely so black and white, and different biological fields are far from mutually exclusive. In fact it has become increasingly important for biologists to look beyond the constraints of their own speciality in order to fully understand their subject. So it is time for the environmentalists to put down their hand lenses, stop riffling through dirt, and join the white-coated, goggle-wearing scientists in the lab in order to discover new ways of thinking – and vice-versa.
The importance of this integration is best demonstrated through the interaction between diseases and the environment. Disease affects all life on earth, so as we can imagine, it plays a huge part in manipulating the world we see (and take advantage of) today. Thus understanding disease and how it influences ecosystems is crucial. Yet humanity often only concerns itself with wildlife diseases when it has a direct threat to our well-being, such as the potential to harm human life (e.g. H5N1 Avian Flu). Or our economy – as was the case with colony collapse disorder in the honey industry. But every now and then, case studies of the negative influence diseases can have on the environment grasp our attention.
In 1986 an unknown water-borne pathogen swept through the Caribbean Ocean, killing over 98 per cent of the Long-Spined Sea Urchin population. Although the epidemic appears to have subsided, the repercussions on coral reefs are only now being recognised. The urchin species is a vitally important herbivore, and its decline has resulted in a rise in unattractive algal blooms and the increasing loss and deterioration of coral reefs across the Caribbean.
“it is time for the environmentalists to put down their hand lenses, stop riffling through dirt, and join the white-coated, goggle-wearing scientists in the lab in order to discover new ways of thinking – and vice-versa”
This has led some experts to the sombre conclusion that in just fifty years these beautiful reefs will have disappeared. The tragedy, however, is not simply the loss of another picturesque scene for humanity to enjoy, but the implications this deterioration will have for the fish species in the wider ecosystem, many of which are highly dependent on healthy coral reefs for food and shelter, so will surely suffer.
This example highlights how vital it is to not only identify disease, but also understand how it arrives, spreads and evolves. Although disease can directly influence human life, it can also affect us indirectly though the effect on our environment. In this case, we can expect future declines in commercial fish availability and an overall decline in the fishery economy and food. As well as the loss of vital resources – such as multiple anti-viral and anti-cancer drugs derived from coral reef dwelling species.
Clearly, understanding disease is not just a concern for human biologists and epidemiologists, but needs to be considered by conservationists and ecologists. In fact, the indirect influence disease has on human life and economy means it is something that should also be understood by the general public. Indeed, diseases affecting simple sea urchins are not only of narrow academic interest, but warrant wider attention and concern from everybody.
Megan Harvey is an MSc student in Science Communication at the University of Manchester. Her background is a BA in Biological Sciences at Oxford University. Her interests are in marine biology, environmental sciences, and the impact of humanity on our planet and Disney movies.