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The Bordenstein laboratory endeavors to understand and disseminate the principles that shape interactions between animals, microbes, and viruses and the basic and translational outcomes of these interactions.

Open Research Positions on Symbiosis and Microbiomes (click here)

Species interactions are fundamentally important aspects of the biosphere. Microscopic entities including bacteria and their viruses, bacteriophages, exhibit profound genomic diversity and often exert functional significance on host fauna and flora. The Bordenstein Laboratory investigates the evolutionary genetic and functional principles that shape the rules of engagement between animals, microbes, and bacteriophages.

We study two forms of interdomain interactions: intimate and facultative. In intimate symbioses between inherited, parasitic bacteria and arthropods, we discovered the long-sought genes in Wolbachia symbionts that selfishly hijack host embryonic development via selective killing of males and a sperm-egg incompatibility termed cytoplasmic incompatibility. These genes occur in a genetic module of prophage WO of Wolbachia that contains an unprecedented menagerie of genes with eukaryotic-like DNA and annotated functions in eukaryotic cell biology. By studying facultative interactions between animals and their microbiomes, we demonstrated across vertebrates and invertebrates that animal phylogenetic relationships frequently mirror their microbiome relationships. This new pattern termed “phylosymbiosis” is a rare, cross-system trend in the field, and our experimental transplants of microbiomes between related species indicate that natural selection can contribute to shaping phylosymbiosis in wasps and mice. Furthermore, our human microbiome analyses and dietary intervention trial reveal a recurrent and persistent influence of ethnicity on gut and oral microbiome and virome variation. Finally, we discovered the first antibacterial gene in Archaea, thus opening up the domain for bioprospecting of new antibiotics. This work has ultimately added major rungs to the ladder of host-microbe interactions, including basic knowledge, translational applications, and cross-system principles that collectively reach new heights in understanding the fundamentals of interdomain, symbiotic interactions.

Our scholarship leverages a wide range of methods and subdisciplines spanning bacteriology, biochemistry, development, ecology, embryology, evolution, genetics, genomics, transcriptomics, virology, and zoology. The lab also leads the Vanderbilt Microbiome Innovation Center and directs the worldwide lab series Discover the Microbes Within! The Wolbachia Project that engages students in nature and real-world research and gives students an idea of what it is like to be a scientist.

Key questions that drive basic and translational outcomes:

  • What are the impacts of ethnicity and diet on human microbiome variation and health disparities? Publication | News | Microbiome Initiative
  • How does bacteriophage WO underpin a global pandemic (Wolbachia) and a major mosquito control strategy? Info | News | Publications
  • How do animals form symbiotic relationships with microbial communities and viruses? Info | News | Publications
  • How did life go from one to many millions of species today, and do microbes impact the origin of new animal species? Info | News | Publications
  • What does the future of science education look like for high schools, colleges, and citizen scientists? How can your community participate in discovery-based research to learn biology and hands-on biotechnology? Wolbachia Project | News | Video