University of Texas at Austin, USA
National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS-TIFR), Bengaluru
As a high school student I decided that I wanted to be a scientist and I would do research in genetics. Of course, I had no clue what this entailed, but I was quite excited by the idea of discovering how genes work, and how they influence organismal functions. However, I soon realized that although genetics provides a nuts-and-bolts understanding of how organisms work, evolutionary theory was much more satisfying for me: it provided a foundation and framework to understand all of biology, and I enjoyed that perspective. So for my PhD, I joined a program in evolutionary biology, and I set up laboratory evolution experiments with flour beetles to test whether genetic diversity in a population predictably alters population dynamics and adaptation. The results were exciting: diversity was indeed beneficial for population size and stability, and prevented extinction in new habitats. However, I did not have the tools to understand precisely why genetic diversity was beneficial. I thus came full circle, back to genetics: for my postdoctoral work, I did experiments to understand why different bacteria seem to prefer different codons to encode proteins, and whether such biased codon use is adaptive.
When it was time to set up my own lab, I was keen on finding a way to use both the molecular and the organismal perspectives I had gained during my training. Thus, my lab at NCBS includes people with diverse expertise and backgrounds, working with a wide range of systems: from computational analyses to natural or laboratory populations of bacteria or insects. However, everyone ultimately addresses the core question of how organisms adapt to their environment, and what determines the rate and degree of adaptation. With the India Alliance fellowship, we are starting a new chapter in the lab: we want to figure out how interactions with insect hosts alter the evolution of the host’s gut bacterial community. For this project, we will combine our understanding of evolution from both molecular and organismal perspectives, as well as across the distinct biology and evolutionary timescales relevant for bacteria and their hosts.