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NIH Grant Supports Research on Fungal Pathogens

Michigan State University plant biologist Frances Trail is part of a team of three scientists to recently receive a National Institutes of Health, or NIH, Research Project Grant to study fungal evolution. A goal of the study is to identify those genes that are important to infection and may be a new target for future drug development.

Trail, who is a co-principal investigator, or PI, on the grant, is teaming up with Jeffrey Townsend of Yale University, lead PI, and Anita Sil of University of California, San Francisco, who is also a co-PI on the project.

Trail, Townsend and Sil aim to identify key genes underlying fungal spore germination and disease progression, leading to diagnostic advancements and potential vaccine candidates for the prevention of endemic fungal diseases.

Trail’s portion amounts to $1.3 million, part of an overall 5-year grant totaling $4 million.

Trail sitting at a microscope, smiling at the camera.

Frances Trail, MSU professor of plant biology, developed a gene “knockout” method to uncover the evolutionary roots of pathogenic fungi.

“I was extremely excited to receive the NIH grant,” said Trail, a professor specializing in plant fungal pathogens in the Department of Plant Biology in the MSU College of Natural Science. “This grant will give our ongoing research on the evolution of fungal functional diversity more stability, providing support for an extended research project without the interruption of constantly writing grants.”

Fungal spores are the microscopic seeds of the fungal world. Scientists know they play a key role in fungal infection, but little is known about the genes that govern the germination and the infectious potential of pathogenic spores.

Using a powerful tool known as “transcriptomics,” the team will compare the evolving lineages of seven fungal species whose common ancestor dates back over 30 million years. The goal is to identify genes that have evolved a unique function, giving the scientists 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,” Trail said. “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.”

The team will sift through millions of years of evolution to find genes that may be responsible for infection, identifying the gene and manipulating it to gain insight into the structural changes it causes in fungal spore germination and infection.

“Our approach enables us to use evolutionary history to empower our search for genes whose activity is essential to infection,” Townsend said. “It’s a great example of how methods developed to perform research in a basic science—evolution—turn out to be extremely important in an applied setting that is important to all of us—medicine.”

“With the ‘knockout’ method, we can begin identifying those genes that are important to infection and may be a new target for drug development,” Trail said. “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.”

Val Osowski via MSU Today

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