UO faculty member receives grant to better understand symbiosis

UO biologist Brendan Bohannan has received a $564,000 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to further knowledge of host-symbiont biology.

The two-year grant will fund Bohannan and his UO colleagues Bill Cresko and Peter Ralph to develop new approaches for mathematically modeling host-symbiont systems. Bohannan will be looking specifically at symbionts within aquatic hosts.

A symbiont is an organism that uses another organism as a habitat. The symbiont is characterized by where it lives rather than the nature of its relationship with the host.

The current host-symbiont theories rely on either the assumption that symbionts are “communities” within a host “ecosystem” or that they are “second genomes” that act similarly to a host’s genome. Bohannan and his collaborators aim to create a novel approach to host-symbiont modeling that synthesizes the two current approaches, producing a new theory that doesn’t rely on the assumptions of the current two.

“We are stepping back and attempting to create theory and models that do not rely on simple metaphors regarding hosts and symbionts,” Bohannan said. “This involves, in part, a merging of past ecological and evolutionary theory, as well as the creation of novel theory that conceives of hosts and symbionts in a new way.”

Understanding the drivers of symbiont variation and how that variation contributes to variation in host fitness is crucial to understanding aquatic symbiosis, Bohannan said. Bohannan is working to produce the body of a theory that will help scientists design ways to better understand how symbionts and their hosts interact, and how those interactions result in important properties such as host development and host health.

He hopes the theory will then contribute to the development of new approaches to treating symbiont-mediated disorders such as diabetes.