Selected Research Foci

Environmental Agents and Disease

Plan of Work for Alaska INBRE


The impacts of climate change on contaminant transport and the emergence and  movements of infectious pathogens are now recognized as important at high latitudes. Arctic and sub-arctic science has been dominated by physical sciences as seen in the first three International Polar Years (IPY’s in 1881-84, 1932, & 1957-58). Due to the efforts of many Arctic nation scientists (notably Alan Parkinson at the CDC in Anchorage ), the current IPY (4th) names human health as a research theme for the first time (

The Arctic is the earth’s “miner’s canary” for industrial pollutants . Climate change perturbs the high latitude deposition and cycling contaminants. To cite two examples: For mercury, we know that power generation, incineration, local mining, and volcanic eruptions can increase available amounts for local and long distance contamination of the Arctic.   Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are bio-accumulated as they move up the wildlife food chain, and then are consumed by subsistence hunters and their families.

The emergence, re-emergence, and spread of infectious agents are sensitive to temperature. The life cycles of water- and food-borne parasites such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Toxoplasma, and Echinococcus are affected by temperature increases (e.g. enhanced reproduction or transmissibility in the environment, range expansions of hosts or vectors).   One of the largest outbreaks of Vibrio parahemolyticus gastroenteritis from oysters was correlated with rising temperatures of ocean water in Alaska (N. Engl. J. Med. 2005 353:1463).   West Nile disease and Lyme disease have not yet reached Alaskan latitudes but suitable mammalian reservoir hosts and potential arthropod vectors are found in our state. Botulism is a new concern in subsistence foods. Little is known about overwintering of wild bird influenza viruses in nature: Minto Flats, near Fairbanks is a “hot spot” with high viral prevalence year after year (Runstadler et al., 2004, Arch. Virol. 375:182).   Minto promises to be prime for studying viral ecology.   Indoor community crowding in close quarters accounted in part for one of the earliest reports of community methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus (J Infect. Dis. 2004 189:1565).

The Alaska INBRE network links UA biomedical research to state-wide concerns about environmental agents and disease and to translational and clinical applications. Our central questions include: 1) What agents are threats to health?   2) Where are these agents and how are they dispersed? 3) How do they inflict damage? 4) What are the cellular and molecular defenses to stress and to insults from the environment? 5) How can this knowledge inform and guide local medical and public health practices in Alaska ? 6) How can our Alaska experience provide models for other sites in the nation and in the circumpolar north and in the seven other Arctic nations? Our investments address the first five questions; the last question concerns intended outcomes.