Linking environmental nutrient enrichment and disease emergence in humans and wildlife

Pieter T.J. Johnson, Alan R. Townsend, Cory C. Cleveland, Patricia M. Glibert, Robert W. Howarth, Valerie J. Mckenzie, Eliska Rejmankova, Mary H. Ward

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

214 Scopus citations


Worldwide increases in human and wildlife diseases have challenged ecologists to understand how large-scale environmental changes affect host-parasite interactions. One of the most profound changes to Earth's ecosystems is the alteration of global nutrient cycles, including those of phosphorus (P) and especially nitrogen (N). Along with the obvious direct benefits of nutrient application for food production, anthropogenic inputs of N and P can indirectly affect the abundance of infectious and noninfectious pathogens. The mechanisms underpinning observed correlations, however, and how such patterns vary with disease type, have long remained conjectural. Here, we highlight recent experimental advances to critically evaluate the relationship between environmental nutrient enrichment and disease. Given the interrelated nature of human and wildlife disease emergence, we include a broad range of human and wildlife examples from terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems. We examine the consequences of nutrient pollution on directly transmitted, vector-borne, complex life cycle, and noninfectious pathogens, including West Nile virus, malaria, harmful algal blooms, coral reef diseases, and amphibian malformations. Our synthetic examination suggests that the effects of environmental nutrient enrichment on disease are complex and multifaceted, varying with the type of pathogen, host species and condition, attributes of the ecosystem, and the degree of enrichment; some pathogens increase in abundance whereas others decline or disappear. Nevertheless, available evidence indicates that ecological changes associated with nutrient enrichment often exacerbate infection and disease caused by generalist parasites with direct or simple life cycles. Observed mechanisms include changes in host/vector density, host distribution, infection resistance, pathogen virulence or toxicity, and the direct supplementation of pathogens. Collectively, these pathogens may be particularly dangerous because they can continue to cause mortality even as their hosts decline, potentially leading to sustained epidemics or chronic pathology. We suggest that interactions between nutrient enrichment and disease will become increasingly important in tropical and subtropical regions, where forecasted increases in nutrient application will occur in an environment rich with infectious pathogens. We emphasize the importance of careful disease management in conjunction with continued intensification of global nutrient cycles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-29
Number of pages14
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2010


  • Dead zones
  • Eutrophication
  • Global change
  • Harmful algal blooms (habs)
  • Host-parasite interaction
  • Human health
  • Nitrogen
  • Zoonotic disease


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