Prentice studies the role of genetics in disease outbreaks among wild animal populations

Melanie Prentice, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maine’s Kamath Laboratory, came to UMaine to study the resistance and susceptibility of host species to pathogens.

Her research interests center around landscape genetics and genomics. In her research she integrates large spatiotemporal, ecological and genetic datasets to address questions concerning the demographic and evolutionary responses of species to changing landscapes.

Prentice earned her doctoral degree in environmental and life sciences from Trent University in Canada, studying the role of genetic markers, called coding trinucleotide repeat markers, in the adaptation of Canada lynx and bobcat. She used this work to recommend management units of peripheral lynx populations in Canada and was invited as a visiting researcher to the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation in Montana to apply her research approach to at-risk populations of lynx in the contiguous USA.

In 2018, she moved to the United Kingdom for a postdoctoral research position at Aberystwyth University, Wales. There, she worked on the EU-funded project, Ecostructure, investigating the impact of coastal artificial structures on gene flow and adaptation of intertidal marine invertebrates. 

Prentice is currently working on a project investigating the genetic basis for susceptibility to anthrax in wild ungulates, or animals with hooves. Her research focuses on the evolution of host susceptibility and resistance in plains zebra and greater kudu populations of Etosha National Park in Namibia and Kruger National Park in South Africa to the endemic pathogen Bacillus anthracis.

Who will benefit from your research/work and how?

My research seeks to understand how hosts and pathogens evolve during disease outbreaks, most specifically focusing on the evolution of susceptibility in hosts. Given that the health of our natural ecosystems is directly linked to human health and the potential for spillover of pathogens from wildlife reservoirs to humans and domestic livestock, this work is important to inform disease surveillance and management globally.

Why does your work stand out, or what is novel or notable about your research?

Genetic and genomic data are versatile tools that can be used to address a broad array of research questions pertaining to disease ecology and evolution. For example, genomic data can tell us a lot about the range of host and environmental reservoirs that pathogens persist in, how pathogens transmit within and between species, and how both host and pathogen co-evolve over time in an evolutionary arms race. My research aims to address just some of these questions so that we can begin to develop an understanding of the impact that pathogens have on wild species and, ultimately, predict the outcomes of novel disease outbreaks in the future. Importantly, this work also facilitates the development of new tools and methods that can be applied to a range of existing and emerging wildlife disease systems.

Elaborate on the interdisciplinary nature of your research and collaborations

My research often involves collaborations between ecologists, evolutionary biologists and modelers. Integrating datasets from these diverse disciplines allows us to generate a broader picture of epidemic dynamics across space and time. Ultimately, this integrative approach can help to build predictive models of future disease outbreaks which can be used to inform the management of species and populations facing severe and sometimes novel pathogens.

What are your hopes/objectives for your time here at UMaine?

While at UMaine, I hope to expand my technical and analytical skills in the fields of disease ecology and evolution. I also hope to spend more time developing application materials for future faculty positions or other non-academic permanent positions within my research discipline so I can start a research lab of my own in the near future.

For more information about postdoctoral research at UMaine, visit our website.