Possum poo study sheds light on human epidemics

May 26, 2014, Australian National University
Credit: Dr Sam Banks

A new study of the way bacteria spread amongst possums could shed light on the spread of human epidemics.

Scientists from The Australian National University studied E. coli in mountain brushtail possums, and found that the bacteria were transmitted in surprising patterns.

"Even though possums are curled up together all day, daytime den sharing was not as important for the spread of E.coli as night time encounters while out foraging," said lead researcher Dr Michaela Blyton, from the ANU Research School of Biology.

"This suggests that it's not just how much time you spend together that's important, it's what you are doing during that time."

E. coli is a widely studied bacterium that occurs in most warm blooded animals. In most cases it is not harmful. However, it can cause human illnesses such as gastroenteritis through or if usually benign strains get into the wrong part of the body.

Dr Blyton's study, published in Ecology Letters, found that interactions between possums were more important than home range proximity for transmitting E.coli .

"E. coli is usually thought of as an environmental pathogen, spread through faecal contamination of water, soil or food," said Dr Blyton. "But this is like 'hang on, maybe there is another route for infection'."

Dr Blyton said 106 strains of E. coli were found amongst the 50-odd possums studied, which made it possible to distinguish the individual transmission routes.

"For most other pathogens so few individuals have the disease that it's very hard to tell the transmission patterns, unless it is an epidemic," she said.

"However, E. coli's prevalence amongst the possums allowed a network map of the bacteria's spread to be developed.

"Data of this type gives a powerful predictive framework for modelling disease spread."

Dr Blyton tracked the possums' interactions with smart collars, which recorded when two possums came within three metres of each other. Radio transmitters on the collars allowed scientists to find the location of the ' dens up to 60 metres off the ground in the high mountain ash forests of the Victorian Alps.

"Knowing the transmission route changes how we model pathogen spread in humans and between livestock and wild animals, which can be important for controlling disease," she said.

Explore further: Predators outweigh disease in possum threats

More information: Michaela D.J. Blyton, et al. "Not all types of host contacts are equal when it comes to E. coli transmission." Ecology Letters, Article first published online: 25 MAY 2014. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12300

Related Stories

Predators outweigh disease in possum threats

February 28, 2014

A study looking at pathogen transmission during the translocation of endangered western ringtail possums (Pseudocheirus occidentalis) has provided an insight into assessing the disease risk for populations.

Roads pave the way for the spread of superbugs

September 29, 2011

Antibiotic resistant E. coli was much more prevalent in villages situated along roads than in rural villages located away from roads, which suggests that roads play a major role in the spread or containment of antibiotic ...

Hybrid possum gives endangered species a chance

May 26, 2011

Australian researchers have successfully bred two genetically distinct Mountain Pygmy-possums, playing a major role in preventing the endangered population in the Victorian Alpine region from further decline.

Recommended for you

Scientists find new antimalarial drug targets

February 20, 2018

Researchers have discovered crucial new processes that allow malaria parasites to escape red blood cells and infect other cells, offering potential new treatment targets. The team are already working with pharmaceutical companies ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Lex Talonis
not rated yet May 26, 2014
And the fact that we are riddled with diseases and all known routes of transmission are known and all the assorted methods to stop them are known - just exactly how does studying how possums SHIT make a whole million man years of the study of human diseases and their spread?

Oh I know... just how the examination and study of the growth habits on high silica granites of the western Mongolian steppes of a rare green grey lichen, has every thing to do with scratching my balls in the morning.

"The link is so obvious."

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.