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Congratulations to the latest PhDs from the Leendertz lab!

By Jan F. Gogarten and Ariane Düx

A huge congratulations to the two most recent graduates from the Leendertz lab, Dr. Leonce Kouadio and Dr. Benjamin Mubemba. They finished with an impressive set of publications that accompany their theses and are continuing their work on emerging infectious diseases in the tropics.

Due to the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, both Dr. Mubemba and Dr. Kouadio were forced to defend their thesis remotely in Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire, respectively. Despite the technological challenges of defending with a spotty internet connection, both received a distinction of magna cum laude.

Dr. Mubemba focused on non-human primate skin diseases, using molecular tools and a diversity of sample types to characterize genomic diversity of pathogens across many species and locations. He showed that a large number of non-human primate species are infected with Treponema pallidum subsp. pertenue by combining high-quality biopsies and tissue swabs from symptomatic individuals, with museomic investigations of primate bones collected across sub Saharan Africa. He found that primate infecting Treponema pallidum subsp. pertenue strains clustered by geography rather than their host phylogeny; this is compatible with cross-species transmission within ecosystems. At the same time, despite the pathogen only having recently been described in Taï National Park, Cote d’Ivoire he showed that it has been circulating in this ecosystem for at least the last 28 years. He combined lab approaches with cutting edge bioinformatic and statistical approaches; this work led to first author publications in Microbial Genomics and Emerging Infectious Diseases and his last chapter on leprosy in wild chimpanzees from West Africa was published as a preprint on BioRxiv and recently submitted to Nature. Dr. Mubemba is in Zambia joining efforts on SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance with MinION sequencers; we are excited to see what he will tackle next and thankful for his dedication and hard work.

Dr. Mubemba defending his thesis!

Dr. Kouadio, our Ivorian PhD student for the DFG-funded project “Emerging viruses in western and southern Africa: molecular identification and characterization of rodent-, shrew-, and bat-borne hantaviruses and assessment of their impact on public health”, focused on small mammal reservoirs of viral hemorrhagic fever causing viruses. He described Lassa viruses in multimammate rats in the Côte d’Ivoire for the first time, and detected similar strains to the one killing a German tourist who had traveled in the region. He further identified a novel hantavirus in a multimammate rat from Guinea indicative of a potential bat-to-rodent spill-over, and detected an enzootic hantavirus in a bat species living in human habitats in Côte d’Ivoire. During his PhD, Leonce applied a range of advanced lab techniques and phylogenetic methods, but also developed expert skills at small mammal trapping and sampling. This led to his deployed as a representative of the RKI to investigate the source of an Ebola outbreak in Likati health zone, DRC, in 2017 together with an international team of scientists. His thesis work was published in Virus Genes and Emerging Infectious Diseases and a submission of his last chapter is planned for the near future. We congratulate Leonce to his achievements and are extremely happy that as a PostDoc for the EU-funded project “Biodiversity changes in African forests and Emerging Infectious Diseases: should we worry?”, Leonce continues to be a part of our German-African collaboration network.

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