Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Health, climate
and biomarkers

Our work investigates the potential health implications of contaminant exposure and utilizes biomarkers and various other tools to study a broad range of molecular to organismal effects. These include the study of internal and reproductive organs (histopathology, size, and morphology), the skeletal system (bone density and morphology using e.g. DXA scanning), immune system (intra-dermal and in vitro testing of lymphocyte functioning, immune globulin production and cytokine and APP expressions), endocrine system (steroid and peptide hormones) and clinical blood biochemistry.


- Transmitted diseases

Seal samples - Zoonotic diseases
Taking samples from a seal, Photo by Christian Sonne


Zoonoses are diseases found worldwide that can transmit from animals to humans. Around 60% of all human diseases are zoonoses, and they can pose serious health threats and be difficult to control. Our section focuses on the occurrence/emergence and dynamics of zoonoses in the Arctic and Baltic. "A zoonosis" is a term used to denote a disease that has the ability to transmit from animals to humans. A classic example could be rabies infection acquired from rabid dogs. In our research, we have specific focus on zoonoses that may be transmitted to humans from wild animal populations, specifically Arctic wildlife.


Zoonoses are not rare. In fact, about 60% of all organisms that cause disease in humans (e.g. virus, bacteria etc.) can be classified as zoonoses. Globally, we continuously see emerging infectious diseases on account of climate change and human activities. Zoonoses also play an important role here, as, again, just about 60% of these emerging diseases are zoonoses. Furthermore, 72% of these zoonotic emerging diseases originate in wildlife, and people most at risk are those with close contact to wildlife, such as indigenous populations in the Arctic that still rely heavily on wildlife for key aspects of diet and culture. Standard food-safety practices in these populations are often not applicable, impractical or rarely adopted in the often remote areas of the Arctic. The overall occurrence of zoonotic infections is largely unknown for these populations and areas.

Contemporary and ongoing issues:

  • How is climate change affecting the emergence of infectious diseases in the Arctic?
  • How does climate change alter the distribution and survival of present Arctic wildlife diseases?
  • What is the link between environmental contaminants and susceptibility to disease?
  • Are contaminants influencing human and animal immunity leading to more infections?
  • To what extent are non-indigenous wildlife species migrating to the Arctic and bringing along new types of diseases, incl. zoonoses?
  • Is increased resource extraction in the Arctic (e.g. the fishing industry) taking appropriate actions in assessing the risk of zoonoses or actual impact on Arctic ecosystems.


The international science-program “ZORRO” was established in 2014, as the issue of Arctic zoonoses was largely unexplored. As such, ZORRO works to unveil the risk for hunters of acquiring diseases from their game, but also the risk of these zoonoses to be disseminated to the general public in the Arctic. ZORRO also investigates possible links between accumulation of environmental chemicals in wildlife and the burden of diseases, incl. zoonoses. In its’ work, ZORRO involves multiple interdisciplinary fields and firmly embraces the “OneHealth” concept and approach.

BONUS Balthealth is another of our international projects, which communicates and shares many research perspectives with with ZORRO. The project focuses on the ecohealth of the Baltic Sea, including animals across the trophic range as well as the general health of the sea-environment. In this work, we also include the monitoring of zoonoses, their occurrence and potential expansion and emergence in the face of climate change, and exceptionally high levels of eco-contaminants in the Baltic. Read more about BONUS BaltHealth.


- Environmental contaminants going up the foodchain

Accumulation of environmental toxins
Accumulation of environmental toxins, Photo by Rune Dietz


Our work on contaminant effects is continuously evolving and innovating to include new avenues of research. We have developed unique risk assessment approaches using physiologically-based pharmacokinetic modelling in which models are used to convert exposure levels to potential health hazards to provide quantitative estimates of risk to many different environmental contaminants. 

We are conducting novel research to evaluate the effects of exposure to realistic pollutant mixtures using in vitro experimentation and dose-response modelling in a wide range of wildlife species in order to assess health responses to real-world contaminant exposures.

We also employ in silico modelling approaches, including dynamic energy budget (DEB) and individual based models (IBM), to extrapolate observed health effects to the individual and population level.  Such information is crucial for on-going conservation efforts for Arctic and Baltic top predatory species, such as polar bears, killer whales and seals, which continue to have extremely elevated body burdens of environmental contaminants.


The bioaccumulation of contaminants in wildlife and humans can lead to elevated tissue concentrations and associated detrimental effects on important immune, endocrine and reproductive functions. Our work on contaminants in marine mammals, especially killer whales and polar bears, has helped shape our understanding of why top predatory species are particularly vulnerable to bioaccumulation: they have long life spans, eat at the top of marine food webs, biomagnify contaminants and have a general limited ability to metabolically eliminate and excrete contaminants. Thus, knowing that certain human and wildlife populations are exposed to high levels of contaminants, our work here is focused on uncovering the associated detrimental health effects at all levels of organization from the molecular to the population level.