Through my research career, I have worn many hats. I started as a molecular biologist and have come to specialize in genomics. Genomics emphasizes the value of DNA in molding patterns of and in living things. A very valuable tool in exploring genomes is next generation sequencing or deep sequencing. The beauty of the technique is that we can explore both in depth and in numbers, things that we could not before as individuals, populations, and communities. With this technology, we can snapshot soil microbiota, reconstruct genomes from ancient preservations, type the etiological agents of disease in a human or animal population and predict drug resistance spread just to list a few abilities this tool gives us.
Our research group at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences explores the ecology and epidemiology of diseases at the interface of wildlife, domestic animal, and human populations. My current project looks at triatomine insects (‘kissing bugs’) that carry the etiological agent of Chagas disease. Chagas disease transmission occurs across the Americas, where kissing bugs can spread the parasite to animals and humans. There is increasing recognition for the disease as a threat to human and animal health in the United States, and Texas is a hotspot for transmission. The Chagas parasite is transmitted by blood-sucking triatomines, seven out of eleven species of which occur in Texas. We have thousands of samples submitted to us by members of the public through a citizen science program run by Dr. Sarah Hamer’s lab (http://kissingbug.tamu.edu/). I am using next generation sequencing to identify the vertebrate hosts upon which the insects have previously fed by dissecting material from the engorged vector hindgut and performing next generation sequencing. It is a challenge to apply this technique to triatomines because they are able to survive months without meals and previous blood meals are potentially degraded. With the identification of multiple hosts, we can trace the host network of the vector and consequently, of any infectious agent the vector carries. As part of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, I hope to contribute toward our understanding of disease in domestic animals and wildlife.
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