Studying Microbial Evolution as it Applies to Public Health
“Until recently, bacteria were low on the list of organisms that evolutionary biologists considered: no wings or beaks, no sexual selection or social behaviour, and little phylogeny or fossil record. Two things have changed all that. The first is the evolution of antibiotic resistance; economically this is the most important evolutionary change that we have been able to study as it happened. The second is the advent of molecular data on a vaste scale”.
-John Maynard Smith et al. BioEssays 2000
Bacteria and viruses can be found in most, if not all, environments on our planet. From the depth of ancient Arctic soil to the guts of every human being and animal, microbes are virtually everywhere. Altogether, microorganisms harbor a plethora of mechanisms that allow them to resist extreme temperatures and desiccation, or to subsist on substrate normally toxic to other life forms.
This adaptability, however, also led to the emergence of infectious diseases. Many bacteria and viruses can evade our immune system and use our resources for its own replication. Some bacteria and viruses even evolved protections against the treatment we used against them. Not only is the spread of resistance against every antibiotic used in medicine one of the most striking examples of adaption we know, it is also one of the most urgent global public health concerns.
My research strives to identify the processes and mechanisms leading to microbial adaptation. More specifically, I use a combination of real-time evolution experiments and genomic approaches to understand how bacteria evolve medically important traits such as antimicrobial resistance and virulence. I work with different microbial systems, including bacteria such as Salmonella and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and bacteriophage, on questions pertaining to evolutionary biology, ecology and microbiology. I am committed to understanding how evolutionary microbiology and ecology can help solve public health issues, especially with regards to antibiotic resistance.