MSU Researcher Among Team Granted $4M to Study Fungal Evolution

A researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing is part of a team of three scientists to receive a five-year $4 million National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant to study fungal evolution. The research could lead to advances in diagnostics and vaccines for endemic fungal diseases.
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fungal spores
An MSU researcher is studying the evolution of fungi to advance diagnoses and vaccines for endemic fungal diseases. // Photo courtesy of Michigan State University

A researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing is part of a team of three scientists to receive a five-year $4 million National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant to study fungal evolution. The research could lead to advances in diagnostics and vaccines for endemic fungal diseases.

Frances Trail and the other two scientists – Jeffrey Townsend of Yale University and Anita Sil of the University of California, San Francisco – are identifying key genes to understand fungal spore germination and disease progression. Trail’s portion of the grant amounts to $1.3 million.

Fungal spores are the microscopic seeds of the fungal world. Scientists know they play a role in fungal infection but don’t know much about the genes that govern the germination and infectious potential of the spores.

The team will compare the evolving lineages of seven fungal species that had a common ancestor more than 30 million years ago. The goal is to identify genes that have evolved a unique function, showing clues about how the species evolved differences in infection and pathogenesis.

“We examine gene expression in the same stages of spore germination and infection across each of the lineages and ask which of the genes have increased in expression in just one of those lineages,” says Trail, who is also a professor in the Department of Plant Biology in the MSU College of Natural Science. “Our hypothesis is that when expression greatly increases, that gene has taken on a new role, and we think that new role is associated with morphological change, giving it the ability to infect humans and animals.

“With the ‘knockout’ method, we can begin identifying those genes that are important to infection and may be a new target for drug development. If we want to eliminate the ability of a pathogen to infect, we need to target the drug to one of the genes that has evolved a function important to infection.”

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