On the Ground with Research on Human Diseases

The human disease San Joaquin Valley Fever is found in hot, dry areas throughout the desert Southwest and Mexico. Plant and microbial biology (PMB) professor John Taylor  studies Coccidioides immitis, the fungal pathogen that causes the disease. The fungus is a natural parasite of small mammals, and its spores, when airborne, also infect dogs and humans. The Taylor lab’s population genomic studies aim to discover if some fungal strains are more dangerous than others and which genes make them so.

NST assistant professor Danica Chen, PhD ’03 Molecular and Cell Biology, explores therapeutic targets to slow aging. By targeting aging pathways, her research has the potential to ameliorate a wide array of seemingly unrelated diseases associated with aging, such as cancer, tissue degeneration, metabolic syndrome, and immune dysfunction.

graphic of cells in the body

Weak or malfunctioning points in metabolic networks can contribute to a large number of diseases, including Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Nutritional sciences and toxicology (NST) assistant professor Daniel Nomura, ’03, PhD Molecular Toxicology ’08, seeks to discover such dysregulated networks in order to identify enzymes that represent nodal points of control. Those enzymes could then be targeted for drug intervention and therapy. Detail of illustration by Mary O’Reilly, courtesy of Nomura Lab.

Environmental science, policy, and management professor Vincent Resh’s lab focuses on the interaction between humans and other organisms in the environment. He uses water-monitoring techniques and insect biology investigations to understand and control diseases with water-borne vectors, such as African river blindness, which is caused by worms that are transmitted by parasitic black flies. Previously, he applied this approach to control mosquitoes that are vectors of malaria. 

istock photo of the human body

Researchers in the lab of PMB professor Steven Brenner use meta-genomics—an integration of all DNA in an environment— to understand Crohn’s disease and the role of microbes in the gut to cause it. Crohn’s disease has long been hypothesized to be associated with these intestinal microbiota, but exactly what causes the disease remains unclear. By explicitly sampling these microbial communities, Brenner aims to better understand when they trigger the disease. He is also part of an ambitious effort to assess whether large-scale gene sequencing aimed at detecting disorders and conditions can and should become a routine part of testing for newborn babies.

Virus illustration by Zoe Davis, courtesy of Glaunsinger Lab.
Virus illustration by Zoe Davis, courtesy of Glaunsinger Lab.

Britt Glaunsinger, PMB associate professor, studies herpes viruses, including Kaposi’s sarcoma, which is a major cause of AIDS-associated cancers. The insidious virus can actually reprogram cells to optimize the environment for replicating more virusesfor example, they can attack RNA, the nucleic acid necessary for making proteins. Researchers in her lab hope their work will shed light on virus-host interactions in other viruses as well.