The Use of Filter-feeders to Manage Disease in a Changing World

Integr Comp Biol. 2016 Oct;56(4):573-87. doi: 10.1093/icb/icw048. Epub 2016 Jul 1.


Rapid environmental change is linked to increases in aquatic disease heightening the need to develop strategies to manage disease. Filter-feeding species are effective biofilters and can naturally mitigate disease risk to humans and wildlife. We review the role of filter-feeders, with an emphasis on bivalves, in altering disease outcomes via augmentation and reduction. Filtration can reduce transmission by removing pathogens from the water column via degradation and release of pathogens in pseudofeces. In other cases, filtration can increase pathogen transmission and disease risk. The effect of filtration on pathogen transmission depends on the selectivity of the filter-feeder, the degree of infectivity by the pathogen, the mechanism(s) of pathogen transmission and the ability of the pathogen to resist degradation. For example, some bacteria and viruses can resist degradation and accumulate within a filter-feeder leading to disease transmission to humans and other wildlife upon ingestion. Since bivalves can concentrate microorganisms, they are also useful as sentinels for the presence of pathogenic microorganisms. While somewhat less studied, other invertebrates, including ascidians and sponges may also provide ecosystem services by altering pathogen transmission. In all scenarios, climate change may affect the potential for filter-feeders to mitigate disease risk. We conclude that an assessment including empirical data and modeling of system-wide impacts should be conducted before selection of filter-feeders to mitigate disease. Such studies should consider physiology of the host and microbe and risk factors for negative impacts including augmentation of other pathogens.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Infections / prevention & control
  • Bacterial Infections / transmission
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena
  • Bivalvia / microbiology
  • Bivalvia / physiology*
  • Bivalvia / virology
  • Climate Change
  • Ecosystem*
  • Filtration
  • Humans
  • Invertebrates / physiology
  • Virus Diseases / prevention & control
  • Virus Diseases / transmission
  • Virus Physiological Phenomena