Population & Evolutionary Genomics - Introduction

Investigating how organisms adapt to ever-changing environments

Our knowledge of organisms, their evolution and the communities they form is crucial to understanding the nature of life, how pathogens cause disease and where outbreaks start.

Escherichia coli, click on image to expand

At the forefront of this field, IGS researchers are studying the traits that make organisms unique, investigating variations in species, and explaining how those differences impact their function.

This research is important to medicine, epidemiology and microbial forensics. By detailing the structure of microbial populations and analyzing differences among isolates of a single species, IGS scientists have discovered unique features - helping pinpoint the origins of disease outbreaks and explaining why some pathogens are deadlier than others of the same species.

Finding features that are unique to disease-causing microbes can help improve the diagnosis of diseases and offer new targets for drugs and vaccines. In their studies of population and evolutionary genomics, IGS scientists are examining a wide range of organisms, from tiny viruses that cause the common cold to bacteria and parasites that cause diarrheal diseases, to small invertebrates such as fruit flies, roundworms and stink bugs. They also study vertebrates such as humans and mice.

Our knowledge of organisms, their evolution and the communities they form is crucial to understanding the nature of life, how pathogens cause disease and where outbreaks start.

Examples of IGS studies in population and evolutionary genomics include such high profile studies as the Anthrax letters in 2001, the E. coli outbreak in spinach of 2006, and the 2011 outbreaks of cholera in Haiti and E. coli in Germany.

Ongoing comparative genomics studies include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (E. Mongodin's research), also known as MRSA, commensal and pathogenic Escherichia coli, human and animal non-typhoidal Salmonella enterica (J. Ravel's research), or of eukaryotic pathogens, such as Plasmodium, Theileria and Babesia (J Carneiro da Silva's research), which cause malaria, East Coast fever, and theileriosis, and babesiosis in humans, cattle and other mammals.

Not all of the research focuses on pathogens. IGS scientists also study bacteria that are beneficial or non-harmful parasites. For example, the bacterium Wolbachia is such an intimate part of its hosts - arthropods and round worms - that parts of its genome are also in the host's genome (J. Dunning-Hotopp research).