Faculty and Research
Heitman Lab Members
312 CARL Building
Box 3546 DUMC
Durham, N.C. 27710
I recently earned my Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the University at Albany: School of Public Health, Albany, NY and joined the Heitman lab in November 2009. I have a M.S. degree in Environmental Forest Biology from the State University of New York: College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY and a B.A. in Biology from The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY.
Mating of Cryptococcus in association with plants suggests an important role of plants as environmental niches for the development of infectious propagules, i.e. basidiospores. C. gattii’s overwhelming association with trees dramatically sets it apart from C. neoformans' typical association with avian droppings. Interestingly, a result of my dissertation research suggests C. gattii passaged on plant substrates significantly enhances C. gattii virulence as observed by increased colonization in the brain and lung tissues, disease progression and significantly reduced survival time in mice. The ease with which we were able to produce a hypervirulent variant of the parent C. gattii strain by simply changing the growth substrate highlights the crucial role that natural habitat is likely to play in innate virulence of this pathogen. Therefore, it is possible that adaptation acquired by Cryptococcus to enhance survival within their primary ecological niche(s) serves auxiliary roles in the evolutionary acquisition of virulence in mammalian hosts.
Immediate goals of my work will be to further understand evolutionary mechanisms for enhanced virulence in C. gattii in comparison to C. neoformans, to elucidate novel molecular mechanisms involved in divergent disease progression associated with C. gattii, and to elucidate potential species-specific molecular signatures that correlate with propensity for the development of cryptococcosis. Identification of molecular signatures associated with development of enhanced virulence of C. gattii could facilitate identification of novel drug targets important in the long-term development of more effective antifungal drug treatment.
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