THERE'S new hope for the fight against future epidemics thanks to a "world first" breakthrough at a Scottish university.

Scientists at the University of Stirling have been able to unpick what determines the size and evolution of disease in a first-of-its-kind study that's been compared to “examining the Black Death 16 times”.

Project leader Dr Stuart Auld said: “Following the outbreak of Covid-19 and the way it has dramatically impacted our lives, disease evolution is now very much of interest to the general public.

“We must better understand the general underlying processes that govern the size and severity of disease outbreaks.

“Any underlying knowledge that helps us better predict disease dynamics – for human, animal and crop diseases – will ultimately be of benefit to society.”

Auld's team used clones of crustacean Daphnia magna to explore whether epidemics could be repeated, and to what scale, in different environments.

Their lab experiments replicated complex natural environments to show how ecological conditions interacted and impacted the size of epidemics, as well as how the epidemics altered the hosts’ ability to resist.

They found that measuring temperature, pH, access to food and predator densities and more enabled them to predict when epidemics were going to be large or small and to forecast changes in the disease, including emerging resistance in hosts and whether or not pathogens became more dangerous.

Auld said: “We know that epidemics vary – the Black Death was worse than the Great Plague of London despite being caused by the same bacterium, but it’s hard to know why.

“We were essentially able to put the same animal into different environments and see how susceptible it was to infection.

“Each pond differed in its temperature profile and all manner of other ecological conditions, but the starting set of hosts and pathogens was the same.

The National:

“This study is almost unheard of – it was like examining the Black Death 16 times over, but each time under different environmental conditions. We were able to show that epidemics aren’t random processes, they are repeatable and predictable when you know a bit about the wider environment.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.