Professor Roman Biek

Professor Roman Biek

Research Interests

I have broad interests in population ecology and genetics but my research focuses on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases in wild and domestic animal populations.

What are the mechanisms that allow infectious organisms to spread across landscapes, to persist locally, or to infect new hosts? What are the temporal and spatial scales at which these processes take place? How does host ecology, including movement and social interaction, affect parasite population dynamics?

We try to address these types of questions through a combination of genetics, field data and quantitative models. The viral and bacterial pathogens we study tend to be significant agents of disease in human, wildlife and domestic animal populations. Traditionally, the main focus of this work had been on RNA viruses, for which genetic change is rapid enough to simultaneously study ecological and evolutionary dynamics on the same time scale (“phylodynamics”).  Driven by recent advances in sequencing technology, it is now possible to routinely sequence entire pathogen genomes, including those of more slowly evolving organisms such a bacteria. This allows us to apply phylodynamic approaches to a much broader range of microbial pathogens. Integrating the ever-increasing amounts of genetic data with other types of information (e.g. spatial, epidemiological, environmental), and finding new analytical approaches to do so, is also an important aspect of this work. At the same time, the availability of whole genomes offers unprecedented opportunities to gain broad insights into the evolutionary mechanisms underlying the host range of pathogens or their ability to emerge in a novel host species.

Examples of current projects

Emergence, spread and control of rabies virus

Despite the existence of effective vaccines, rabies continuous to be an important public health problem in many parts of the world. In North America, wildlife species (e.g. raccoons, bats) maintain the disease, whereas unvaccinated dogs constitute the main reservoir in Africa. For both these settings, we are interested in the ecological and evolutionary processes taking place during both epidemic and endemic spread of the virus, Specifically, we aim to determine how physical landscape and host population structure affect rabies epidemiology and genetic structure and how this could inform better control strategies. In addition, we are trying to understand how the virus is able to emerge in new host species and the adaptive processes potentially underlying this.

Selected publications:

Mollentze, N., Streicker, D. G., Murcia, P. R., Hampson, K. & Biek, R. Virulence mismatches in index hosts shape the outcomes of cross-species transmission. Proc National Acad Sci 202006778 (2020).

Brunker K, Lemey P, Marston DA, Fooks AR, Lugelo A, Ngeleja C, Hampson K, Biek R. Landscape attributes governing local transmission of an endemic zoonosis: Rabies virus in domestic dogs. Molecular Ecology 9, e0003645 (2018).

Trewby, H., Nadin-Davis, S., Real, L. & Biek, R. Processes Underlying Rabies Virus Incursions across US–Canada Border as Revealed by Whole-Genome Phylogeography. Emerging Infectious Diseases 23, 1454–1461 (2017).

Evolutionary ecology of tick-borne pathogens 

Lyme borreliosis (LB), the most common arthropod-transmitted disease in Europe, is caused by the bacterial pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi s. l. and is transmitted by ticks. Although many vertebrate species are susceptible to B. burgdorferi infections, only some species (mainly birds and small mammals) maintain the pathogen. Over recent decades, there has been a sharp rise in reported human cases in most European countries, including the UK. Yet, the reasons behind this increase and to what extent it might be linked to changes in host communities or other forms of environmental change remain unclear. We are using ecological field data on tick and pathogen distribution across locations and host species as well as pathogen genomics to identify ecological and evolutionary drivers of the hazard of Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections, and how these hazards might be mitigated. 

TickSolve project (NERC Highlight Grant with CEH, U Liverpool, and UKHSA)

Selected publications:

Millins, C., Leo, W., MacInnes, I., Ferguson, J., Charlesworth, G., Nayar, D., … Biek, R. Emergence of Lyme Disease on Treeless Islands, Scotland, United Kingdom. Emerg Infect Dis 27, 538–546 (2021).

Millins, C., Dickinson, E. R., Isakovic, P., Gilbert, L., Wojciechowska, A., Paterson, V., … Biek, R. (2018).Landscape structure affects the prevalence and distribution of a tick-borne zoonotic pathogen. Parasites & vectors 11, 621 (2018).

Millins, C., Gilbert, L., Medlock, J. M., Hansford, K., Thompson, D. B., & Biek, R. Effects of conservation management of landscapes and vertebrate communities on Lyme borreliosis risk in the United Kingdom. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society Of London Series B-Biological Sciences 372, 20160123 (2017).

Epidemiology of anthrax in sub-Saharan Africa

Anthrax is a classic neglected disease that continues to affect impoverished communities and their livestock in many parts of the world, but that also can cause signficiant mortality in wildlife. It is caused by the multi-host bacterial pathogens Bacillus anthracis and B. cereus biovar anthracis that are renowned for their ability persist in the environment as spores, resulting in highly varriable time intervals betweeen outbreaks. We are combining field epidemiological and genomic data to identify environmental predictors of anthrax infection and understand how cases are linked through space and time. Due to highly variable intervals between infections, common molecular epidemiological approaches are often not applicable to anthrax, causing a need for the development of novel methodology to infer transmission dynamics from pathogen sequence data.

Selected publications:

Forde, T. L., Dennis, T. P. W., Aminu, O. R., Harvey, W. T., Hassim, A., Kiwelu, I., … Biek, R.Population genomics of Bacillus anthracis from an anthrax hyperendemic area reveals transmission processes across spatial scales and unexpected within-host diversity. Microbial Genomics 8, 000759 (2022).

Aminu, O.R., Forde, T.L., Ekwem, D., Johnson, P., Nelli, L., Mmbaga, B.T., Mshanga, D., Shand, M., Shirima, G., Walsh, M., Zadoks, R.N., Biek, R., Lembo, T. Participatory mapping identifies risk areas and environmental predictors of endemic anthrax in rural Africa. Scientific Reports12(1), 10514.(2022).

Hoffmann, C., Zimmermann, F., Biek, R., Kuehl, H., Nowak, K., Mundry, R., … Leendertz, F. (2017). Persistent anthrax as a major driver of wildlife mortality in a tropical rainforest. Nature548(7665), 82–86. (2017).

Molecular evolution and ecology of bluetongue virus

Bluetongue virus (BTV) is a vector-borne, segmented RNA virus, responsible for a globally important disease in livestock. In recent decades, repeated incursions of BTV into Europe have caused major outbreaks and significant economic damage. However, the major drivers behind BTV emergence, spread and persistence remain poorly understood. We are using extensive data sets of BTV genomes and accompanying metadata to gain insights into molecular evolution of the virus, including the role of viral reassortment (the exchange of genome sequence) in phenotypic change and emergence. We are further applying phylogeographic and coalescent-based approaches to genomic data in order to reveal patterns and environmental drivers of spatial spread and viral persistence.

Selected publications:

Pascall, D.J., Nomikou, K., Bréard, E., Zientara, S., Filipe, A. da S., Hoffmann, B., Jacquot, M., Singer, J.B., Clercq, K.D., Bøtner, A., Sailleau, C., Viarouge, C., Batten, C., Puggioni, G., Ligios, C., Savini, G., Rijn, P.A. van, Mertens, P.P.C., Biek, R.*, Palmarini, M.*, “Frozen evolution” of an RNA virus suggests accidental release as a potential cause of arbovirus re-emergence. PLoS Biology 18, e3000673. (2020) (* joint senior authors)

Jacquot M, Nomikou K, Palmarini M, Mertens PPC, Biek R. Bluetongue virus spread in Europe is a consequence of climatic, landscape and vertebrate host factors as revealed by phylogeographic inference. Proceedings Biological sciences / The Royal Society 284, 20170919. (2017).

Nomikou K, Hughes J, Wash R, Kellam P, Bréard E, Zientara S, Palmarini M, Biek R*, Mertens PPC*. Widespread Reassortment Shapes the Evolution and Epidemiology of Bluetongue Virus following European Invasion. PLoS Pathogens 11, e1005056. (2015) (* joint senior authors)