An animal’s gut microbiota (the community of bacteria that live inside the host animal) convey numerous fitness traits to the host, including supplying nutrition, affecting mate choice, providing protection from natural enemies, immunity, and even speciation. Furthermore, it is understood that soil and water bacteria have the capability of metabolizing xenobiotics, and specifically the herbicide atrazine, as carbon and nitrogen sources. In conjunction, these observations raise the question of how the environmental stress of xenobiotics affect animal health through the microbiome? When the environment stresses the microbial community, how does the host respond? Do adaptive traits become fixed in populations when host-microbe relationships are stressed for several generations? As such we are able to experimentally test concepts using insect models in response to xenobiotic compounds. There are two major projects in the lab that are central to this theme.
Long-term evolution project
Using the model insect system Nasonia, we use xenobiotics to stimulate changes to the microbial community and determine host immune response and adaptation across host generations.
One aspect of the Nasonia system is the inducible diapause development which allows us to maintain “ancestral” genome populations in the lab for up to two years. Diapause is an overwintering strategy for insects in temperate climates in order to survive the cold season and to synchronize their active phase with more favorable conditions and available food sources. As such, it is analogous to hibernation in mammals and other kinds of dormancy in animals and plants.