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School & Program Updates

Yale: Townsend Lab Receives $4 Million Grant to Study Fungal Evolution

Yale School of Public Health Elihu Professor of Biostatistics Dr. Jeffrey Townsend has received a 5-year, $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the lead principal investigator (PI) on a multi-institutional team studying the role of fungal evolution in spreading disease.

Dr. Townsend, and co-PIs, professor Dr. Frances Trail of Michigan State University and associate professor Dr. Anita Sil of the University of California, San Francisco, will use the latest tools in comparative genomics and evolutionary biology to identify key genes underlying fungal spore germination and disease progression. The findings could lead to new diagnostic techniques and potential vaccine candidates for the prevention of endemic fungal diseases.

Approximately 300 fungi are known to cause disease in humans. Some fungal diseases, like Candida auris and Aspergillosis, can be potentially fatal to people with weakened immune systems.

Fungal spores are the microscopic seeds of the fungal world. Scientists know how fungal infections start — when a spore germinates and grows in the environment of its host. But little is known about the genes governing these events. With the NIH funding, Dr. Townsend and colleagues will investigate how shifts in gene expression over time allowed different fungi to evolve and gain the ability to attack their hosts in different ways.

“Our approach enables us to use evolutionary history to empower our search for genes whose activity is essential to infection,” said Dr. Townsend, who is also a professor of ecology an evolutionary biology and a member of Yale’s Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Program. “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”.

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