Current Projects

The Newton Laboratory is broadly interested in host-associated microbes. We study who those microbes are, what those microbes are doing, how they persist and infect and what the consequences are to their genomic evolution.  Projects in the laboratory range from highly mechanistic and cell biological to ecological and bioinformatic.

Molecular Mechanisms of Pathogenesis and Mutualism:  How do endosymbionts invade and persist in host lineages? Do the molecular tools they use resemble those of pathogens? Our laboratory studies how one extremely successful parasite, Wolbachia pipientis, invades and manipulates host cells.  Our lab was the first to discover Wolbachia effectors and characterize WalE1, an actin bundling protein that increases Wolbachia transmission to the next generation. Current work in the lab focuses on what host processes these effectors usurp and how they facilitate intracellular infection by Wolbachia. 

Pathogen Blocking:  Wolbachia pipientis, once thought purely a selfish parasite, turns out to provide a mutualistic benefit to many hosts – protection from RNA viruses. In collaboration with virologist Dr. Rich Hardy at IUB, we investigate how Wolbachia alters the host to inhibit virus replication. We discovered that Wolbachia upregulate a host methyltransferase to inhibit virus replication. We are most excited about epigenetic effects that Wolbachia may have on the virus genome and how these in turn may alter genome stability and function.

Protective Symbiosis in the Honey Bee: Although the honey bee gut microbiome is well characterized, less is known about the function of microbes that colonize other hive environments. Graduate student Delaney Miller discovered that the honey bee symbiont Bombella apis, produces a potent antifungal that protects against fungal pathogens. We are interested in identifying how the symbionts make this secondary metabolite and how this trait has evolved in this clade.

Metabolic Function in the Microbiome: The honey bee gut is home to a suite of well characterized bacterial species but within each species we find a significant amount of strain level diversity.  We study the functional meaning of this diversity with regards to metabolism, ecological interactions between community members, and ultimately, host health.  For example, we identified diversity with regards to both carbohydrate usage and short chain fatty acids produced by different strains from the microbiota.

Exploring How Host Genetics, Society and Development Interact to Form the Microbiome: Where do host-specific bacteria come from? How is an organism colonized during development? Does its sociological context or genetic background alter microbiome composition? We investigate these questions in the context of the honey bee, where we have discovered that queens host a very specific and different microbiome compared to worker bees.

Evolutionary Genomics: Host association can have dramatic effects on bacterial evolution.  We are interested in the genomic changes that occur when bacterial lineages associate with  hosts.  These changes include pseudogenization, gene loss, gene duplications, and rearrangements.  We’ve thought about this in the context of intracellularity ( and Wolbachia) as well as in the microbes associated with honey bees.

Bioinformatics: The laboratory is interested in methods and tool development for the study of genomes, genes, and their evolution. See our most recent publication in PeerJ.

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