Ecology and Emergence of Zoonoses

Zoonoses, diseases transmitted between animals and humans, substantially threaten human health, but also domestic animals and wildlife. Influenced by climate change, globalization, anthropogenic disturbance and habitat fragmentation, contacts at human-animal interfaces become more frequent, thus increasing the risk of zoonotic emergence and, ultimately, pandemics. Our research aims to understand emergence and ecology of such zoonoses, i.e., how pathogens are transmitted between populations, landscapes and ecosystems. By incorporating data on the biotic and abiotic context of these transmissions, we generate evidence that allows us to contribute to pandemic preparedness and prevention. This department is located at the Helmholtz Institute for One Health (HIOH).

Prof Dr Fabian Leendertz


Prof Dr Fabian Leendertz
Research Group Leader

Our Research

The Department of Ecology and Emergence of Zoonotic Diseases addresses the interfaces between humans, animals, and the environment, including climate, and explores the processes that facilitate the emergence of disease.

Based on data and samples from systematic long-term "One Health Surveillance" (coordinated by the OHS Core Unit at HIOH) and focusing on regions with frequent human-animal contacts, we study the transmission of clinically relevant pathogens as well as the ecological and socio-ecological conditions leading to human-animal contacts and transmission events. We do not focus on specific pathogens, but investigate the background of actually occurring infectious diseases.

Pathogens with zoonotic potential, which are identified in our screenings in sentinel regions, are subjected to in-depth investigations for a comprehensive understanding of their ecology. This approach enabled us to detect many relevant pathogens over the past two decades, e.g., monkeypox virus, Ebola virus, Bacillus cereus bv anthracis (BCBVA), Mycobacterium lepraeTreponema pallidum, respiratory pathogens, as well as other globally important agents (e.g., coronaviruses, paramyxoviruses, and viruses causing encephalitis).

In addition, to identify pathogens potentially relevant to human health, we exploit the evolutionary proximity to wild apes. This has led, among other things, to the discovery of leprosy in wild chimpanzees, suggesting unknown environmental reservoirs; to the discovery of the anthrax pathogen BCBVA, which can cause massive mortality in wildlife populations; but also to serological evidence of frequent BCBVA exposure in surrounding human populations. Cases of monkeypox in wild chimpanzees have also been documented, in turn prompting investigations of previously unknown reservoir species.

Generally, these studies serve to enhance global pandemic preparedness and prevention by improving our understanding of fundamental mechanisms of disease emergence and transmission between humans, animals, and the environment, but also through technology transfer to our partners in sub-Saharan Africa). Moreover, as an active member of several international global health networks (Scientific Advisory Board of the National Research Platform for Zoonoses, One Health Advisory Board of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Scientific Commission of the Great Apes Survival Partnership in the United Nations Environmental Programme), Fabian Leendertz decisively strengthens research and surveillance capacities in countries that urgently need such support.

In our department, the One-Health concept in research and teaching helps new generations of researchers learn to incorporate integrative One-Health thinking into problem-solving. Graduate students as well as undergraduates have the opportunity to learn state-of-the-art methods and apply them to unique data sets to answer both fundamental and translational research questions.