We study how animals have evolved to defend against pathogenic microbes, and how pathogens evolve to colonize and infect animal hosts.
EVOLUTION OF HOST IMMUNE DEFENSE
Infectious diseases are a potent force of natural selection. Repeated adaptation at host-microbe interfaces can lead to molecular ‘arms races,’ providing some of the most dramatic examples of rapid evolution observed in nature. We are working to understand how animals, particularly humans and related primates, have evolved to recognize and respond to pathogenic bacteria. Using a combination of evolutionary genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology approaches, we are able to directly test how mutations in specific genes influence anti-bacterial immune defense functions. Our work to date has applied this approach to explore a range of areas including bacterial nutrient metal acquisition and the evolution of pathogen recognition by primate immune receptors.
Bacteria and fungi are faced with a variety of challenges when colonizing the host environment including predatory phages, competing resident microbes, nutrient limitation, and host immunity factors. One of our emerging goals is to identify the forces that shape microbial evolution within the host and determine how microbes adapt to these diverse obstacles. We perform experimental evolution of microbes in the lab to track the process of adaptation in real time, as well as develop molecular and genetic tools to assess the impacts bacterial diversity on disease-associated functions. In addition to advancing our fundamental understanding of the evolutionary process, identifying determinants of adaptation in human pathogens could also reveal new avenues for infectious disease treatment and prevention.