Strain of the Vibrio cholerae bacterium that causes cholera outbreaks
Microscope view of Vibrio cholerae O1, a serotype of the bacterium that causes outbreaks of cholera. V. cholerae thrives in aquatic environments, particularly in brackish water or estuaries, and infection is primarily spread via drinking water. Changes in global climate and associated hydroclimatic conditions could influence the dynamics of disease outbreaks. Credit: Daniela Ceccarelli

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) have established a collaboration focused on understanding the emergence, presence, and abundance of microbes in climate processes. Such transdisciplinary research that merges the two worlds of microbiology and geoscience should enhance prospects of improving public health outcomes.

In a recent bilateral colloquium, members of the two societies discussed mechanisms for determining productive interactions between physical/biological processes and associated microbiome responses that could be directed to responding to the anticipated increased variability in climate. Potential areas of study include effects of climate change and ecosystem modifications on growth, distribution, and population dynamics of microorganisms, as well as environmental microbial diversity affecting human health.

In line with this collaborative effort, Rita R. Colwell and Daniela Ceccarelli, Founding Editor and Editor of AGU newest journal, GeoHealth, respectively, hosted a session at the ASM Microbe 2018 meeting in June entitled Geohealth: A Bridge across Disciplines to Solve Global Challenges.

Daniela Ceccarelli, Luigi Vezzulli, Rita Colwell, and Antarpreet Jutla brought a geoscience perspective to a microbiology meeting at ASM Microbe 2018. Credit: Genevieve Garriss

The session provided a unique platform for exploring the full spectrum of microbiology from basic science to translation and application to address the issue of climate change impact on microbial ecology.

The aim was to engage environmental and health professionals in assessing emerging transdisciplinary tools that could assist in linking microbiology to global issues of human health and environmental change.

Cholera risk map. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

The session was opened by Rita R. Colwell describing a new modelling approach employing satellite sensors.

The model allows the development of risk maps for cholera in several regions of the world (see example left), based on factors including availability of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, population density, monthly air temperature and precipitation, and severity of natural disasters.

Next, Luigi Vezzulli, presented experimental data on multidecadal climatic variability in the North Atlantic and the presence and spread of Vibrio spp., an important group of marine prokaryotes responsible for several infections in both humans and animals.

Luigi Vezzulli presents a study linking sea surface temperatures, the presence of Vibrio spp. and documented human illnesses. Credit: Genevieve Garriss

The United States government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the average annual incidence of all Vibrio infections increased by 41 per cent between 1996 and 2005 and is still growing.

Ocean warming was shown to clearly play a role in promoting changes in Vibrio and plankton populations, and the observed increase in marine vibrios was paralleled by the number of documented human illnesses caused by Vibrio.

Following that, Antarpreet Jutla, demonstrated how satellite remote sensing can be used to track emerging pathogens such as the vector-borne Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika viruses. Satellite data can be used to track hydroclimatic conditions under which Aedes mosquitoes survive and thrive, triggering viruses’ transmission to humans. The three viruses were determined to be associated with thresholds of precipitation, and both air and dew point temperatures.

Geohealth is nothing new. The Greek physician, Hippocrates, suggested a connection between climate, water, and the occurrence of disease back in the 5th century BCE. Credit: Public domain

The notion of integrating microbiology and geosciences is neither new nor novel. In his book, “On Airs Water and Places,” Hippocrates suggested a strong role of regional climate and water in the occurrence of diseases.

Thousands of years later, it is appropriate to ask what we have learned from such early observations. Are we yet able to predict outbreaks of diseases by employing geophysical signatures? Have we been able to incorporate disease transmission modules into sophisticated hydrological models?

These questions are likely to become increasingly important if we are to understand hydrologic and climatic controls of the seasonality and spatial variations of pathogens causing diseases in a world under increasing water stress, urbanization, and population pressure, as well as climate change.

Integrating knowledge gathered by microbiologists and geoscientists could improve public health outcomes

Water- and vector-borne diseases are unlikely to be eradicated since the causative agents are able to live, adapt, and survive in the environment. Consequently, they cannot be defeated by medicine alone. However, this innovative approach—integrating knowledge gathered by microbiologists and geoscientists—could minimize the impact of infectious agents on future generations and improve public health outcomes.

—Daniela Ceccarelli, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands; email:; Antarpreet Jutla, West Virginia University; and Rita R. Colwell, University of Maryland, College Park and Johns Hopkins University


Ceccarelli, D.,Jutla, A., and Colwell, R. R. (2018), Microbes meet geoscientists, Eos, 99, Published on 23 July 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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