Strategic Initiatives


Water Quality & Public Health - Disease Ecology & Pathogen Evolution


The ‘Disease Ecology and Pathogen Evolution’ (DEPE) Strategic Initiative addresses several key issues in public health and conservation in New Zealand. As a nation we have unacceptably high rates of infectious human diseases caused by microbial organisms. Diseases caused by the bacterial pathogens Campylobacter and Salmonella are often traced to animal sources, and contaminated water can harbour the protozoans Cryptosporidium and Giardia. Outbreaks of these diseases can result in substantial losses to the economy, and infectious disease is also a major concern for national wildlife conservation programmes. The DEPE project theme ‘One Health’ recognises that the health of humans, animals and ecosystems are inextricably linked, and need to be considered collectively.

The initiative is co-ordinated by PI Professor Nigel French of Massey University’s Molecular Epidemiology and Public Health Laboratory. It draws upon the expertise of AWC researchers working in the fields of evolutionary biology, mathematics, ecology and epidemiology and involves collaborations with several government departments and other groups including the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Ministry of Health, DOC, Landcare Research, the Auckland Zoo and the Cawthron Institute.

This project investigates a range of disease issues affecting New Zealand, including the rise of toxic sea slugs on our beaches, water quality in DOC campgrounds, the kiwifruit pathogen Psa, and the evolution of campylobacter, using tools developed by the researchers to trace the evolution and transmission of disease in the New Zealand environment.

Key Benefits 

  • Predictive evolutionary and epidemiological models with implications for public health and conservation 
  • An evolutionary framework within which to understand super-antigen diversity and antibiotic resistance 
  • Development of expertise and a knowledge-base that meets the needs of NZ in infectious disease 
  • A platform for vaccine development 

Read about the DEPE projects PhD candidates Ben Phiri, Yeserin Yildirim, Zoe Grange and Anya Friedrich are working on in these excerpts from Pheno, the AWC newsletter.
Nigel French discusses zoonoses – disease agents that have multiple animal hosts including humans - on Radio NZ’s ‘Our Changing World’ program (10 March 2011).