Wildlife health for a better world

Michael Wallach. Photo by: Shane Lo

Michael Wallach. Photo by: Shane Lo

In summary: 
  • The Wildlife One Health Initiative is a dynamic cross-disciplinary team of UTS scientists who aim to tackle wildlife health, loss and extinction
  • It’s aim is to become a world-leading group that deals with wildlife health, biosecurity, human zoonoses (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans), and food quality

Koalas, quolls and coral reefs – they’re just a few of the unique Australian plants and animals facing extinction. For more than 20 years, the government’s response has been ‘wait and see’. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t worked. Enter the Wildlife One Health Initiative – a team of highly-skilled UTS scientists that, as Michael Wallach explains, aim to tackle the problems of wildlife health, loss and extinction. 

Australia is facing a wildlife crisis. Unique species of flora and fauna are disappearing at an alarming rate and we are not doing nearly enough to save them. After decades of inaction, the problem has become critical. 

That’s why, in the Faculty of Science’s School of Life Sciences, we’ve assembled a highly-skilled and dynamic cross-disciplinary team of scientists to tackle the problems of wildlife health, loss and extinction, and to develop a fundraising campaign to fund future research. 

It’s called the Wildlife One Health Initiative and it’s aimed at not only improving the health and wellbeing of our wildlife, but at developing early warning systems for detecting poor wildlife health and decline, and subsequent flow-on impacts to human health. 

Coral reefs face destruction. Image: Thinkstock Coral reefs face destruction. Image: Thinkstock

It’s not an easy task, but our approach is a very powerful one. We have combined the tools of highly sophisticated genetics, immunology, and epidemiology with the expertise and strategies of wildlife ecologists and sustainability researchers to investigate current predicaments and find solutions. 

What kinds of solutions?

Already our researchers have shown how green walls can improve human health indoors; that wildlife-friendly production practices reduce the need for pesticides that harm wildlife and humans; and that healthy populations of apex predators, like the dingo, provide better outcomes for wildlife as well as for farmers. But there is still much more to be done.

One of the problems we’re currently aiming to solve is the question of just how safe the kangaroo meat that is being marketed in Australia and internationally actually is. UTS researcher Michael Johnson has been collaborating with colleagues at the National Institutes of Health in the USA to elucidate the potential threat to humans of the Toxoplasma parasite found in kangaroo meat. 

This parasite causes severe eye infections, blindness and even death in marsupials and our recent work has indicated the same strains of Toxoplasma can be transmitted to pregnant women. Infection of expectant mothers with this parasite can be devastating for mother and baby and can result in stillbirth or mental retardation in the offspring. In addition, Professor of Molecular Biology John Ellis showed the closely related parasite, Neospora caninum (a cause of abortion in cattle), was lethal to native marsupials and questioned the role of the dingo in transmission of the parasite to both cattle and wildlife.

When it comes to koalas, we’re striving to solve the rising rate of infertility caused by the bacterial pathogen chlamydia (the same bacterium responsible for the most frequently reported sexually transmitted infection in humans). 

Molecular Microbiologist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences Wilhelmina Huston has already developed a new potential therapeutic drug to treat this disease. With enough financial support, she hopes to be able to initiate a program to help save koalas from sterility and extinction.

Professor of Infectious Diseases in the ithree Institute Steven Djordjevic is, meanwhile, leading a team looking into how antibiotic resistance genes move between humans, food animals and the environment. These studies will help predict and characterise emerging bacterial pathogens that pose a threat to both animal and human health. 

An example of this is the threat of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, E. coli, which is often the cause of urinary tract infections in humans. If the bacteria aren’t stopped early on in the infection they can reach the kidneys and then the bloodstream causing systemic infection and even death.

Australia is facing a wildlife crisis. Image: Thinkstock Australia is facing a wildlife crisis. Image: Thinkstock

Another bacteria, of the genus Vibrio, is also under the spotlight. Senior Lecturer Maurizio Labbate has been carrying out research on this group of bacteria, which includes the well-known and devastating human pathogen Vibrio cholerae (the cause of cholera), along with a variety of other disease-causing strains affecting aquaculture species like oysters, fish and coral. 

Labbate’s team is focused on the genetics that lead to the emergence of Vibrio pathogens affecting humans and animals. In collaboration with Future Fellow and Associate Professor in the Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster (C3) Justin Seymour, Labbate is also untangling the complex web of physical and biological factors that lead to Vibrio-specific disease outbreaks.

In other research, we aim to better understand how humans and our culling programs impact the conservation and welfare of kangaroos; how we can prevent and reverse population declines of critically endangered northern quolls in northern Australia; and how climate warming is affecting the health of coral reefs and fish and the persistence of frogs in coastal NSW. 

Rainforests face destruction. Image: Thinkstock Rainforests face destruction. Image: Thinkstock

When it comes to Australia’s natural resources, the Ecosystem Security team is focused on the sustainable management of water, vegetation, fisheries and wildlife; the impacts of climate change on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; and the role of vegetation in mitigating airborne pollutants.

Simply put, the aim of the Wildlife One Health Initiative is to become a world-leading group that deals with wildlife health, biosecurity, human zoonoses (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans), and food quality.

The initiative, guided by principles that promote peaceful co-existence between humans and wildlife (as exemplified by the Centre for Compassionate Conservation headed by Daniel Ramp), is working to help restore the balance between our wildlife needs and the needs of the ever-expanding human population. This balance requires an understanding of the intricate relationships between humans, animals and the environment. 

It is our hope, and belief, that one day Australia’s citizens and wildlife can co-exist in a state of positive health and wellbeing.

The Wildlife One Health Initiative research team includes: Michael Wallach, Michael Johnson, Wilhelmina Huston, Steven Djordjevic, Jonathan Webb, Maurizio Labbate, Justin Seymour, Daniel Ramp, Stuart White, Arian Wallach, Finbarr Horgan, David Booth, Rebecca Bathgate, Graham Pyke, Fraser Torpy, John Ellis

Find out more about their research