Modeling pathogen transmission: how different factors shape disease transfer between species

zoonotic disease fig from GAO report

Now that it’s flu season, most of us are worried about catching the virus from a sneezing coworker. Though we mostly think about disease transmission between people, pathogens like influenza are also transmitted between species (remember swine flu?). This process of pathogen transmission from non-human species to humans is critical for researchers and health care providers to better understand. There are a huge number of factors in the environment that can affect how a pathogen moves between species. Despite this complexity, some interesting patterns have been uncovered by recent research from Joseph Mihaljevic and his coworkers in Dr. Piet Johnson’s lab in CU Boulder’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department.

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Cardiac valve cells sense their environment through signaling pathways

Mouse embryonic fibroblast 
cells in culture.

For over half a century, biologists have been culturing cells in vitro, or in a dish, separate from the organisms they come from.  Many of the natural features of a cell can be recapitulated in culture; however, our inability to specifically recreate their native environment is a significant hurdle in understanding countless cellular processes and associated diseases. Within an organism, cells take cues from surrounding tissues and cells, and from the kind of surface on which they exist.  Such signals instruct the cells when they should divide, or differentiate into a new cell type, when they should move, and even when they should die.  Creating a setting that is as close as possible to the natural environment of a cell is essential for truly understanding how cells work.

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