Animal life evolved in the context of immense microbial diversity, and microbial symbiosis plays diverse and important roles in animal physiology. Gut microbial communities help process the varied diets of animals ranging from leaf-cutting ants to baleen whales. Microbial action allows some animals, such as woodrats, to feed on otherwise poisonous plants, thereby affecting the range over which they can spread. Amazingly, its now clear that microbial symbionts even influence animal behavior, with examples ranging from mate choice in fruit flies to social anxiety and compulsive behavior in mice. Microbes also live in and on us, and their genes greatly outnumber our own. Understanding the human microbiome is a key goal for medicine, because our microbes affect everything from how we process drugs, to how vulnerable we are to pathogens like Clostridium difficile.
In this talk I will discuss how studying microbial adaptation to life in association with humans led to a new phylogenetic predictive methods that integrate large scale evolutionary modeling with the set of sequenced genomes to estimate functional capabilities of under explored microbial communities. I'll then describe how we are using this and other microbiological methods to help us better protect coral reefs from outbreaks of disease caused by overfishing, nutrient pollution, and climate change.
Intriguingly, some of the insights from applying these methods to long-term studies of coral microbiology are shedding light on puzzling microbiological patterns in immuno compromised people and animals. I will discuss how these results present new opportunities for development of theory and new computational tools in the area of microbial community stability and network analysis. Because the same underlying dynamics have been observed (but are often under-reported) in many animal systems in which host control of the microbiome has been disrupted, developing improved tools and theory in this area may help us better understand microbial dynamics in a variety of contexts, including key human diseases like AIDs.