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 group is located at the Helmholtz Institute for One Health (HIOH).
The One Health concept is key to pandemic preparedness and prevention.
Fabian Leendertz studied veterinary medicine at the University of Budapest and the Free University (FU) Berlin. In 2005, he became a doctor of veterinary medicine and group leader of the primate diseases group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Subsequently, at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) Berlin, he led the Emerging Zoonoses Junior Research Group (until 2012) and qualified as a specialist veterinarian in microbiology. While heading the RKI project group Epidemiology of Highly Pathogenic Pathogens (2012 – 2021), he completed his habilitation in microbiology at the FU Berlin in 2016.
In 2021, Fabian Leendertz was appointed founding director of the Helmholtz Institute for One Health (HIOH) in Greifswald and a professor for One Health at the University of Greifswald. His scientific focus is on understanding the "where", "how", and "why" of microorganism transfer from one species to another, while a central aim is also to elucidate the importance of pathogens and microorganisms for animal populations. To address these questions, he worked on viruses, bacteria (pathogens as well as the broader microbiome), parasites, and bacteriophages. Each project builds on a One Health framework that includes data not only on the pathogen itself, but also on its host (e.g., behavior, ecology, evolutionary history) and the surrounding environment.
The tropics of Africa, where the potential for the emergence of novel zoonotic diseases is high, due to high biodiversity, intensive and frequent human-animal contacts, and significant ecological and socioecological changes and gradients, are in the center of Fabian Leendertz’ research interest. In addition to this scientific focus, building long-term collaborations with African partners and international networks is key to his research agenda. At HIOH, he will shape the institute’s focus by adding a regional component to his research, combining local aspects of One Health, particularly human-animal-environment interfaces, with cohort studies (e.g. SHIP) already established in northeastern Germany (Western Pomerania).
Fabian Leendertz’ main achievements include the discovery of a new type of anthrax pathogen (Bacillus cereus bv anthracis) and the first description of leprosy in wild great apes. Moreover, he led the investigation on the source of the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 and is part of the WHO expert group that investigates the origin of SARS-CoV-2. In recognition of his commitment to nature conservation, he received the Champion of the Earth Award of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2020. Furthermore, he has published more than 165 papers, many of which received considerable attention in the media. He is also a member of several advisory boards, such as the Scientific Advisory Board of the German National Research Platform for Zoonoses, the One Health Advisory Board of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Scientific Commission of the Great Apes Survival Partnership at UNEP.
A current overview of the team and further information about the research group can be found on the HIOH page.