RESEARCH PROBLEM: The identification of potential ecological factors that affect the dynamics between hosts, vectors, and their microbes could have a marked impact on our ability to prevent and control vector-borne diseases. Recent studies have suggested that interactions among microbes within the individual vector may affect the density of a pathogen, and its transmission rate and virulence to the host. However, factors that affect the microbial composition of vectors remain obscure. I will use a rodent–flea model to elucidate the effects of three candidate factors, host age and grooming behavior, and vector densities on a host, that are likely to impact microbial diversity of vectors. PROPOSED METHODOLOGY: Pyrosequencing—a recent developed technique in molecular biology—allows a comprehensive assessment of microbial communities. The current project will make use of this technique to compare between the microbial assembly of fleas that will be collected during a field survey from juvenile and adult rodents, and during two laboratory experiments, in which host grooming and flea densities will be manipulated. EXPECTED CONTRIBUTION: In this study, I will investigate the relationships between multiple functional groups, i.e., hosts, vectors, and their commensal, mutualistic, and parasitic microbes. This approach is expected to uncover key mechanisms that would not – and could not – be revealed by focusing on a single pathogen. The results of the study can also serve as a basis for assessing the local risk of transmission of flea-borne diseases to animals and people and predicting whether this risk will change in response to changes in flea densities, host behavior, and host-age distribution. The interdisciplinary basic and applied importance and timeliness of the research topic – together with the match between my profile and project –promise the success of this project and its contribution to European excellence and European competitiveness.
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