Tarja Sironen starting as associate professor of emerging infectious diseases in the Helsinki One Health network

Recently, one of the central themes of the One Health concept has been drawing attention in the form of the new Wuhan coronavirus. The new virus, originating in China, is a zoonotic microbe, or a microbe with the ability to spread between animals and humans, causing diseases in both animals and humans. Tarja Sironen, recently appointed as associate professor of emerging infectious diseases at the Helsinki One Health network, studies precisely this kind of evolving microbes and the conditions that turn them into pathogens. Sironen has started in the position, which is shared by the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine, in February.

The world is full of microbes, but only a fraction of them cause diseases to their host organisms or have the ability to be infectious to different animal species. Such microbes that spread between species can occasionally threaten a new species, since certain species may not have a functional immune response at the ready against an unfamiliar microbe with pathogenic potential. In such cases, the microbe is able to easily infect a large group of individuals of the new species. Zoonotic microbial infectious diseases, that is microbial diseases infectious to humans, include SARS, MERS, Ebola and swine influenza.

Tarja Sironen is interested in the changing traits of microbes and aims to produce through her research knowledge that helps to prepare for various infectious threats in a changing environment. In her work, she also examines those environmental factors that have an effect on the emergence of infectious diseases.

- I'm interested in infectious diseases, zoonoses in particular, as research focused on them employs a broad perspective, and you can adopt several viewpoints to investigate them. Looking for novel microbes resembles detective work, and identifying new viruses never loses its fascination, Sironen says.

Tools for pathogen identification from microbiology

With modern techniques, the enormous spectrum of microbes found in animals can be effectively surveyed. However, the ability is still missing to predict the pathogenic potential of newly found microbes on the basis of the genome sequencing carried out in genetic research. Sironen’s research is focused on identifying the microbial traits preceding the evolution of microbes into pathogens, knowledge that can be utilised in the prevention of infectious diseases.

Sironen, a cellular biologist who began her studies at the University of Jyväskylä, advanced her career through virology to the broader field of microbiology and the study of zoonoses. She was supposed to become a biology teacher, but, reading her textbooks, she had more questions than the books had answers, making her look for bigger challenges. In fact, Sironen’s appointment to the associate professorship at the Helsinki One Health network turns over a new leaf for her in academia, providing her with new opportunities to find answers to big questions.

- Rapidly changing environmental factors, such as the climate, have a simultaneous effect on the health of both humans and animals. Provisions for such change can be made through multidisciplinary research and by safeguarding our one health also in the future, says Sironen.

Further information:

Tarja Sironen, docent of virology, associate professor, tarja.sironen@helsinki.fi

Olli Peltoniemi, professor, HOH director, vice-dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, olli.peltoniemi@helsinki.fi

Marjukka Myllärniemi, professor, vice-dean of the Faculty of Medicine, marjukka.myllarniemi@helsinki.fi