Parasitic and infectious disease responses to changing global nutrient cycles

Valerie J. McKenzie, Alan R. Townsend

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

99 Scopus citations


Parasitic and infectious diseases (PIDs) are a significant threat to human, livestock, and wildlife health and are changing dramatically in the face of human-induced environmental changes such as those in climate and land use. In this article we explore the little-studied but potentially important response of PIDs to another major environmental change, that in the global nutrient cycles. Humans have now altered the nitrogen (N) cycle to an astonishing degree, and those changes are causing a remarkable diversity of environmental and ecological responses. Since most PIDs are strongly regulated by ecological interactions, changes in nutrients are likely to affect their dynamics in a diversity of environments. We show that while direct tests of the links between nutrients and disease are rare, there is mounting evidence that higher nutrient levels frequently lead to an increased risk of disease. This trend occurs across multiple pathogen types, including helminths, insect-vectored diseases, myxozoa, and bacterial and fungal diseases. The mechanistic responses to increased nutrients are often complex and frequently involve indirect responses that are regulated by intermediate or vector hosts involved in disease transmission. We also show that rapid changes in the N cycle of tropical regions combined with the high diversity of human PIDs in these regions will markedly increase the potential for N to alter the dynamics of disease. Finally, we stress that progress on understanding the effects of nutrients on disease ecology requires a sustained effort to conduct manipulative experiments that can reveal underlying mechanisms on a species-specific basis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)384-396
Number of pages13
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2007


  • Eutrophication
  • Infectious disease
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrients
  • Parasite
  • Phosphorus


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