How do microbes drive the nutritional ecology of herbivores?
I aim to study herbivore-microbe symbioses across multiple biological scales, from the molecular and physiological mechanisms underlying the initiation and maintenance of these partnerships, to the ecological and genetic consequences of coevolution.
Leaf beetles display remarkable variation in their host plant breadth, ranging from specialists to browsing generalists. Central to my interest in this system is the question of whether microbial symbionts contribute towards dictating the feeding ecology of their hosts? By tying observed polymorphisms in symbiotic conditions to the correspondingly diverse feeding biology of leaf beetles, I ask: how do mutualistic contributions by bacteriome-housed symbionts mediate shifts in host plant use? And, by examining the genomic signatures of these symbionts, what is the nature of these contributions?
Modulation of host metabolism by resident gut microbiota
Gut microbial communities can contribute to the overall health of animals through a range of nutritional and/or defensive functions. Firebugs, which harbor a simple, conserved community, rely on nutritional supplements from their microbial associates. By combining the experimental tractability of generating symbiont-free animals with metagenomic and transcriptomic analyses, firebugs serve as a unique model to address the molecular basis of how gut microorganisms modulate the metabolism of their hosts, as well as the underlying mechanisms by which nutrients are exchanged at the epithelial interface.
Genomics of parasite specialization in fungus-growing ants
There are more than 200 species of leaf-cutting ants that cultivate fungi as their primary food source. The ants' cultivated fungi are attacked and consumed by parasites of the genus Escovopsis. Central to this research is the question of specificity between a parasite and its host. Using ant fungiculture as a system, the aim is to explore the genes governing host-seeking behavior and infection by a specialized parasite following exposure to native or foreign hosts, and highlight the genomic signatures of genotype-specific infectivity that contribute to the high specificity observed in this system.