We study the mechanistic forces that drive animal–microbe interactions. Our lab takes an interdisciplinary approach in order to understand these relationships at multiple levels, ranging from atomic to organismal.

Bacterial cell wall recognition

The bacterial cell wall provides structural support and is also chemically unique to bacteria. Thus, this contiguous network is both an important target for antimicrobial defenses and a molecular cue for other organisms, indicating that bacteria are present. The chemical composition and three-dimensional organization of cell walls can vary depending on bacterial species and environment. Using biochemical, structural, and genetic tools, we are trying to understand how these differences impact recognition of this key surface by host and bacterial proteins.

VECTOR–pathogen interactions

Associations between animals and bacteria can be highly specific. Zoonotic pathogens are often transmitted by a highly restricted range of vector hosts; thus vector–pathogen relationships provide a unique opportunity to study the molecular basis of host–microbe specificity. We are investigating this question in the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, which transmits numerous human pathogens, such as the Lyme disease-causing bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi