Autotrophs play an essential role in the cycling of carbon and nutrients, yet disease-ecosystem relationships are often overlooked in these dynamics. Importantly, the availability of elemental nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus impacts infectious disease in autotrophs, and disease can induce reciprocal effects on ecosystem nutrient dynamics. Relationships linking infectious disease with ecosystem nutrient dynamics are bidirectional, though the interdependence of these processes has received little attention. We introduce disease-mediated nutrient dynamics (DND) as a framework to describe the multiple, concurrent pathways linking elemental cycles with infectious disease. We illustrate the impact of disease-ecosystem feedback loops on both disease and ecosystem nutrient dynamics using a simple mathematical model, combining approaches from classical ecological (logistic and Droop growth) and epidemiological (susceptible and infected compartments) theory. Our model incorporates the effects of nutrient availability on the growth rates of susceptible and infected autotroph hosts and tracks the return of nutrients to the environment following host death. While focused on autotroph hosts here, the DND framework is generalizable to higher trophic levels. Our results illustrate the surprisingly complex dynamics of host populations, infection patterns, and ecosystem nutrient cycling that can arise from even a relatively simple feedback between disease and nutrients. Feedback loops in disease-mediated nutrient dynamics arise via effects of infection and nutrient supply on host stoichiometry and population size. Our model illustrates how host growth rate, defense, and tissue chemistry can impact the dynamics of disease-ecosystem relationships. We use the model to motivate a review of empirical examples from autotroph-pathogen systems in aquatic and terrestrial environments, demonstrating the key role of nutrient-disease and disease-nutrient relationships in real systems. By assessing existing evidence and uncovering data gaps and apparent mismatches between model predictions and the dynamics of empirical systems, we highlight priorities for future research intended to narrow the persistent disciplinary gap between disease and ecosystem ecology. Future empirical and theoretical work explicitly examining the dynamic linkages between disease and ecosystem ecology will inform fundamental understanding for each discipline and will better position the field of ecology to predict the dynamics of disease and elemental cycles in the context of global change.
Disease-mediated nutrient dynamics: Coupling host-pathogen interactions with ecosystem elements and energy
Article published in Oikos
Article published in Ecology Letters