Dead or alive: carbon as a currency to integrate disease and ecosystem ecology theory


Death is a common outcome of infection, but most disease models do not track hosts after death. Instead, these hosts disappear into a void. This assumption lacks critical realism, because dead hosts can alter host–pathogen dynamics. Here, we develop a theoretical framework of carbon-based models combining disease and ecosystem perspectives to investigate the consequences of feedbacks between living and dead hosts on disease dynamics and carbon cycling. Because autotrophs (i.e. plants and phytoplankton) are critical regulators of carbon cycling, we developed general model structures and parameter combinations to broadly reflect disease of autotrophic hosts across ecosystems. Analytical model solutions highlight the importance of disease–ecosystem coupling. For example, decomposition rates of dead hosts mediate pathogen spread, and carbon flux between live and dead biomass pools are sensitive to pathogen effects on host growth and death rates. Variation in dynamics arising from biologically realistic parameter combinations largely fell along a single gradient from slow to fast carbon turnover rates, and models predicted higher disease impacts in fast turnover systems (e.g. lakes and oceans) than slow turnover systems (e.g. boreal forests). Our results demonstrate that a unified framework, including the effects of pathogens on carbon cycling, provides novel hypotheses and insights at the nexus of disease and ecosystem ecology.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Eric W. Seabloom
Angela Peace, Texas Tech University
Lale Asik, Texas Tech University
Rebecca A. Everett
Thijs Frenken
Angélica L. González
Alexander T. Strauss
Dedmer B. Van de Waal
Lauren A. White
Elizabeth T. Borer

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