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How much does biodiversity loss contribute to the spread of new infectious diseases?

How much does biodiversity loss contribute to the spread of new infectious diseases?

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Research project including Leibniz University Hannover seeks to better estimate the risk of zoonoses

Researchers assume that biodiversity loss – for example through human interference in ecosystems – promotes zoonoses, the transmission of diseases between animals and humans. But how large is this effect? Quantifying it is the goal of an international research team directed by Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and co-directed by Leibniz University Hannover. The findings are to support early detection of increased risks for the development of zoonoses. The recently launched project “Zoonosis Emergence across Degraded and Restored Forest Ecosystems” (ZOE) will receive some four million euros in funding from the EU Commission over four years within the European research framework programme “Horizon Europe”. The partners are from seven countries in Europe and four in the Americas.

Zoonotic infectious diseases emerge where human and animal habitats overlap, in settings such as factory farming and the commercial wild animal trade or when people eat wild animals. The same process occurs in areas where humans intervene in natural ecosystems – for two major reasons. First, this brings people into contact with wildlife. And second, human interference upsets ecosystem health. The loss of biodiversity affects the likelihood of zoonoses emerging. This effect is felt especially keenly where people use landscapes for the first time or in a different way than before, such as when forests are cleared to create pastureland for livestock or plantations, or where cities spread into the surrounding areas.


Interdisciplinary team maps macro- and micro-biodiversity

The precise links between land use changes, biodiversity loss and the risk of zoonoses are still unclear. To gain a better understanding of these issues, Prof. Dr. Jan Felix Drexler, virologist at Charité and coordinator of the new research project, and Prof. Dr. Nadja Kabisch, landscape ecologist at Leibniz Universität Hannover (LUH) and co-coordinator of the project, have assembled an interdisciplinary consortium of experts in geography, geobotany, ecology, virology, immunology, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, anthropology and dissemination of knowledge.

The researchers plan to map biodiversity in detail in forested areas that have been subjected to different kinds of human intervention. To that end, the team will be investigating native forests as well as degraded and reforested areas in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Slovenia, and Slovakia.

To identify the land use and the various species living in these areas, the researchers plan to use both satellite imaging and on-site field studies to gather information on landscape characteristics and the flora and fauna present there. They also intend to determine how many potentially dangerous microorganisms are circulating in the ecosystem by using advanced sequencing methods to test rodents, ticks, and mosquitoes – all important vectors for zoonotic diseases – for various bacteria and viruses.

Blood samples from people living in the area should shed light on how many of these pathogens have already been transmitted. In addition to the biomedical studies, the team also plans to conduct systematic household surveys on aspects such as how people living in the areas studied perceive the environmental changes taking place there, how often illnesses emerge, and how they deal with the risk of infection.


Predictive models for early detection of zoonosis risk

The researchers will use the data to develop statistical models to estimate the extent to which the risk of zoonotic diseases increases because of land use changes and biodiversity loss. The team at LUH is mainly responsible for the analyses of land use changes using remote sensing data of the case study areas. “We will examine the prevailing landscape structures, especially concerning human interventions and the dimensions of habitats. In other words, we will use remote sensing data to attempt to estimate changes to the landscape and their impacts on habitats and thus on biodiversity”, explains co-coordinator Nadja Kabisch, who directs the Digital Landscape Ecology Group at LUH. The LUH Geobotanics Institute is involved in ZOE with Prof. Hans Jürgen Böhmer leading the vegetation mapping in the case study regions. The knowledge gained in the project will be made available both to the local people and to the general public. The goal is to identify and limit the risk of zoonoses early on – as a building block for preventing future epidemics.


Further information and all project participants: https://ec.europa.eu/info/funding-tenders/opportunities/portal/screen/how-to-participate/org-details/999981828/project/101135094/program/43108390/details


Note to editors:

For further information, please contact Prof. Dr. Nadja Kabisch, Digital Landscape Ecology Group (Tel. +49 511 762 3591, email nadja.kabisch@phygeo.uni-hannover.de).