I am an evolutionary cell biologist interested in understanding how sensory and motor systems have evolved and integrated in animals and fungi. My research spans organismal and molecular levels of organization—tracing the evolutionary trajectories of how animals and fungi perceive, process, and respond to their environment. To find answers to our overarching research question, my research program uses chytrid fungi as a study system.
Chytrid fungi are a group of fungi that diverged from the more studied model fungal systems affecting human health (Aspergillus, Candida, Cryptococcus, etc) and crops (Fusarium, Magnaporthe, etc) approximately ~800 million years ago. With that amount of evolutionary independence, chytrids are very different from our common models of fungi and represent an untapped wealth of biological diversity. In addition, they have retained many traits thought to be shared by the last common ancestor of animals and fungi—both molecular and phenotypic. One such phenotype is the zoosporic lifestage; it is a dynamic, highly motile single-celled spore that lacks a cell wall, can swim with a posterior flagellum, crawl using actin-based pseudopods, then encyst on surfaces by synthesizing an entire cell wall in minutes. Chytrids have independently evolved as symbiotes with plants, algae, and animals multiple times across the group, with an inordinate trend towards parasitism. A few of these species are such effective parasites they cause host-mortality and after escaping their native range have become deadly pathogens in naïve populations. This has occurred most notably with Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which infects amphibians and is the causative agent for a pandemic described as the worst ecological disaster in recorded history.
Sensory evolution in fungi
My initial work investigated the origins and evolution of light sensitive GPCRs in animals, in particular opsins. However, understanding how sensory and motor systems integrate as they evolve required an organism with less steps between sensation and response. In addition to their ecological importance, chytrids possess a surprising diversity of sensory systems. Vision, chemosensation, and thigmosensation have been integrated into both behavioral and developmental stages of the chytrid life cycle, making for a charismatic and dynamic organism to work with. I aim to broaden our understanding of how early sensory systems evolved and gave rise to behavior by examining the sensory modalities, modes of motility, and their integration in chytrid biology