Dr. Flor Sangermano receives NSF grant to study the impacts of deforestation and forest regeneration on zoonotic spillover risk.

Summary of grant:

Habitat loss affects plant and animal abundance, composition, and ecology. These changes affect how species interact, leading to changes in ecological function and services, including the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans (called zoonotic spillover). The Brazilian Atlantic Forest is rich in biodiversity, including diverse populations of rodents also considered reservoirs for pathogens. Because of this, the area is a potential hotspot for future emerging infectious diseases. The Atlantic Forest has a dynamic forest cover with thousands of hectares experiencing deforestation and restoration yearly. These dynamics make the area ideal for studying the effects of landscape changes on small mammal communities and their impact on the transmission of pathogens to humans. The research aims to understand how the reorganization of biodiversity due to landscape changes affects human health. This research will increase knowledge on the interactions between landscape change, biodiversity loss, functional diversity change, and spillover risk. In addition, it will provide information to delineate policies and guidelines to maintain and create landscapes, which can conserve biodiversity and deliver health-provisioning ecosystem services. Results will be communicated to stakeholders, including NGOs, governments, researchers, and local communities. In addition, awareness talks will inform communities about the relationship between land change and infectious diseases to decrease spillover risk and prevent future pandemics.

Zoonotic diseases are characterized by complex interactions between multiple species and their environment. Because of this, they are expected to be affected by landscape characteristics. The research has two objectives: 1) To understand how habitat loss and landscape structure affect functional diversity, viral diversity, network composition, and zoonotic spillover risk; and 2) To understand how forest restoration can reinstate functional diversity, ecosystem resilience, and the provision of disease regulation services. For the first objective, the researchers will use secondary data to establish rodent-pathogen (viral diversity) networks to understand how forest cover and landscape structure affect spillover risk. Results will be extrapolated to the entire Atlantic Forest, creating a spillover risk map that will help policymakers and stakeholders to create policies and guidelines. Objective 2 will be based on primary data collection. The researchers will evaluate the effect of forest restoration on the recovery of small mammal species richness, the recovery of functional diversity, the reestablishment of interaction network composition (small mammals and pathogen networks), and the reduction of spillover risk. Finally, the influence of landscape structure and the restoration age on the recovery of the disease regulation services will be assessed. This research will advance the knowledge on disease ecology by developing tools for predicting the effects of land-use change, including forest restoration, on complex networks and zoonotic spillover risk. Knowledge of the effects of land-use change on spillover risk is essential, as zoonotic diseases have complex transmission cycles involving agents that respond differently to landscape changes. Understanding how restoration affects viral diversity and zoonotic risk is critical to developing win-win strategies to ensure healthy landscapes for humans and animals and to avoid new epidemics and pandemics.

Examining Impacts of Land Use Change on Pathogen Spillovers