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People, Primates and Pathogens: The Evolution of a Global Emergency and the Future of Conservation and Public Health Efforts

Mother and baby lemurs

This project investigates the infectious disease exchange between human and nonhuman primates using two mycobacterial diseases – tuberculosis and leprosy – as case studies.

Disease exchange between humans and other animals has been an important adaptive pressure during our evolutionary history. However, the processes by which this occurs are poorly understood. Thus far, research has focused on infectious organisms that likely became human-specific during the transition to agriculture.

More recently, the importance of monkeys and apes (non-human primates) as sources of infectious agents that are now adapted to humans has been highlighted because of the HIV epidemic. It is likely that non-human primates have long been important sources of new pathogens because of their close evolutionary relationship to us. The biological similarities mean that pathogens require few changes to make the “jump” to humans. Nonhuman primates may also serve as reservoirs for diseases that affect both them and us (and vice versa), thwarting both primate conservation and human public health efforts at containment and eradication.

We are investigating the infectious disease exchange between human and nonhuman primates using two mycobacterial diseases – tuberculosis and leprosy – as case studies. We hypothesize that our primate ancestors also shared mycobacteria within and between species, and that an understanding of the past and present interactions between primates (both human and nonhuman) and mycobacteria will provide baseline data to inform current and future public health, conservation and diagnostic/treatment efforts.

Anne Stone, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Co-Principal Investigator
Lisa Jones-Engel, Washington National Primate Research Center
Alicia Wilbur, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Co-Principal Investigator
Ananias Escalante, Arizona State University School of Life Sciences
Gerardo Chowell-Puente, Georgia State University School of Public Health, Co-Principal Investigator
Magdalena Hurtado, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Leanne Nash, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Gerard Cangelosi