Emergence and Evolution of Bacterial Pathogens
“The Greeks have given us one of the most beautiful words of our language: Enthusiasm, a God within. The grandeur of the acts of women and men are measured by the inspiration from which they spring” Louis Pasteur
Bacteria have colonized the Earth for billions of years and are ubiquitously distributed throughout the globe: from the inhospitable glaciers of Antarctica to scorching deep-sea vents in the Galapagos Rift. Their propensity to exchange genetic material and responsiveness to environmental fluctuations make prokaryotes a captivating group in which to study evolution and niche colonization.
Since the dawn of humanity, bacteria have devised numerous ways to effectively colonize us. Among other strategies, such as symbiosis or commensalism, some microorganisms have emerged as human pathogens. These changes came about through a variety of mechanisms including the acquisition of novel traits encoded in genetic clusters such as pathogenicity islands or lysogenic phages, incremental change, or the repurposing of old traits that formerly had a function in their natural environment.
Our primary scientific interest lies at the interface between ecology and pathogenesis. We are fascinated by how living organisms improve their ability to adapt to changes and colonize new niches. Our work focuses on the emergence and evolution of pathogenic bacteria. We investigate how environmental factors affect their pathogenic potential, which genetic traits are prerequisites in colonizing a new niche such as the human host, how they acquire and regulate virulence genes, and what their ecological relationships are with other members of their natural environment.
We study members of the family Vibrionaceae, a highly diverse group of aquatic bacteria that includes from symbionts to human pathogens. In particular, we work with Vibrio cholerae, the etiological agent of the severe diarrheal disease cholera, Vibrio vulnificus, the cause of a deadly septicemia, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a foodborne pathogen that causes bloody diarrhea, and Vibrio coralliilyticus, a temperature dependent coral pathogen.