Taita Research Station upgraded for top research

The University of Helsinki Taita Research Station in Kenya will open a new virology laboratory. Its construction is part of a wider effort to understand the effects of environmental change on the spread of viruses.

This week, Taita Research Station will open new laboratory facilities funded by the Weisell Foundation and several University of Helsinki faculties. The facilities will enable not only state-of-the-art virology research, but also a broader One Health approach. At the same time, the station buildings have been upgraded with modern accommodation and a kitchen.   

“The new building and laboratory will take our operations to a whole new level,” says the station director, Professor Petri Pellikka.

Perfect environment for viral research

Avian flu, COVID-19, monkey pox, West Nile virus and Ebola – new viruses are increasingly being discovered in new regions and animal species. Encounters between humans and domestic and wild animals are ever more frequent as a result of changes in the environment, climate and land use, exacerbating the risk of viruses jumping from one species to another. 

All these issues are explored at Taita: Why and how are land use, the climate and animal populations changing, and how are these changes affecting not just the spread of viruses, but also farming, microclimates, water resources, biodiversity and human livelihoods? Taita Taveta County is an excellent place for such research because it is like Africa in miniature: conditions in this small area of 50 x 50 km vary from the Taita dry plain, 500 metres above sea level, to the forest-covered peaks of the Taita Hills, at altitudes of over 2,000 metres. The full spectrum of global change is thus in evidence.

With the world’s fastest growing population, Africa needs more agricultural land to feed its people, and this in turn reduces the surface area of forests and bushes. This combined with climate change curtails the traditional territories of wild animals, leading to species loss. It also alters the habitats of animal species that carry viruses, thus expanding the areas of virus circulation too. Large cattle herds grazing along savannah plains, wild buffaloes and the primates, bats, mosquitoes and rodents of the mountain rainforests come into contact with each other and with us humans.

Multidisciplinary research to prevent spread of diseases

The factors driving the spread of infectious diseases are complex, and their research requires a multidisciplinary approach. With its new laboratory and facilities, Taita Research Station is the ideal place for such research. Working side by side at the station are researchers including biologists, geographers, climate scientists, virologists and social scientists.

Multifaceted research on zoonoses and pandemics is one of the topics of a new University of Helsinki profile-building project, RESET. Headed by Associate Professor Tarja Sironen, RESET involves social scientists in resolving the most difficult problems of our time.

“To implement real change, we need social scientists to maximise research impact and the use of research results,” she says.

The new building will allow visits by large student and researcher groups, and more versatile laboratory work on site. Funding from the Weisell Foundation will enable the purchase of basic equipment for the virology laboratory, and the aim is to obtain other external funding to upgrade the equipment required for multidisciplinary research. The station has been used by not only the University of Helsinki for field courses in geography and biology, but also the universities of Oslo, Würzburg and Kenyatta as well as Finnish general upper secondary schools. In fact, the first to use the new building were students from the Linnankoski general upper secondary school in the southern Finnish town of Porvoo, who did so even before the official opening ceremony on 3 November.

Information on Taita Research Station and examples of research work

Over several decades, Taita Research Station has collected geospatial and measurement data on environmental change, which is extremely valuable for research. The station’s environmental laboratory is equipped with 120 measuring devices, of which two flux measurement stations track such climate parameters as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, alongside rain, temperature and other basic parameters. In addition, the measurement stations produce information on the impact of climate change on the spread of viruses, because rising temperatures and humidity are expected to affect the spread of host species.

Although Taita Research Station was established in 2011, Professor of Geoinformatics Petri Pellikka was already studying changes in land use in the region, using methods of remote sensing, as early as 2003. The focus of research later turned to the effects of land use changes on ecosystem services with funding from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, among others. In recent years, Pellikka has developed, with funding from the Research Council of Finland and the European Commission, climate-smart agricultural solutions to support food security and mitigate climate change. The geospatial data on land cover produced with remote sensing methods are also needed for One Health research, which includes the investigation of land use change.

The REACT project of the Research Council of Finland involves agricultural researchers led by Professor Laura Alakukku as well as three Kenyan universities.

The ESSA project funded by the European Commission assesses the carbon footprint of cattle farming and develops alternative livelihoods for cattle farmers, such as beekeeping. The project aims to develop livelihoods requiring woody vegetation to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it in wood and soil. Bees make the best honey from the flowers of acacia trees! Collaboration partners in the project include the University of Nairobi, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Geospatial and measurement data on environmental change collected over decades are also incredibly valuable for research on virology and animal-borne diseases. To store data and ensure that work can be done, the INTEREARTH project focuses on not only the maintenance of measuring devices, but also the sharing, analysis and use of data. The emphasis at Taita is on the impact of land use change on the sequestering carbon in nature and the greenhouse gas concentration of the atmosphere.

This autumn, Tarja Sironen launched a joint project with University Researcher Essi Korhonen with DEVELOP2 funding from the Research Council of Finland. Titled GLOBEID, their project will produce information on factors affecting the outbreak of diseases and on high-risk regions of Kenya so as to mitigate and prevent the economic and public health impact of the burden of disease. The project will enhance local capabilities by developing diagnostic capacity, training local experts and increasing public awareness of disease control. GLOBEID supplements the projects undertaken by Essi Korhonen with funding from the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation and by Postdoctoral Researcher Ruut Uusitalo with funding from the Sakari Alhopuro Foundation. Korhonen’s project surveys viruses circulating among the region’s animals and identifies viruses potentially threatening human and animal health. Uusitalo’s project investigates the impact of environmental factors on the prevalence of important viral vector species in the current and future climate. The project aims to identify regions where future epidemics may emerge. Viruses and microbes travel with their host animals and human travellers across borders. This is a global challenge that requires a global response. Accordingly, Tarja Sironen will participate in the ZOO-SURSY project commencing in 2024 and focusing on the study of zoonoses and their spread throughout Africa.