Microbiology & Immunology Graduate Student
B.S. in Biology, University of Colorado Denver
The family Filoviridae contains two genera of nonsegmented, negative-strand, RNA viruses—Marburgvirus and Ebolavirus. Filoviruses are highly lethal hemorrhagic fever viruses with fatality rates of up to 90% and must be handled in maximum containment. My research involves investigating the dynamics of filovirus adaptive evolution. Specifically, my research focuses on the idea that filoviruses have high spontaneous mutation rates that are important for virus biology and pathogenicity. Related RNA viruses show high rates of spontaneous mutation and my preliminary research indicates that significant diversity does exist within filovirus populations. Current evidence suggests that the spontaneous mutation rate for filoviruses is similar to other RNA viruses. High spontaneous mutation rates may lead to rapid evolution and the generation of a heterogeneous viral genome population, typically referred to as "quasispecies." High spontaneous mutations rates and the resulting quasispecies help give viruses adaptive potential because they allow viruses to rapidly respond to selection pressures. For other RNA viruses, quasispecies and rapid adaptation are thought to be involved in emergence, diverse tissue tropisms, diverse host ranges, and high potential for spread to new regions.
Over the course of my project, I aim to identify the genetic and phenotypic changes in filoviruses during adaptation to cells of various species. Specifically, I will determine how passage affects replication efficiency, infectivity, morphology, and viral genome sequence. In addition, I aim to identify the genetic changes that occur within the different tissues of a host during experimental infection.
A better understanding of spontaneous filovirus mutation rates and the resulting effect on adaptive evolution is essential. Research on these topics is critical to determine the likelihood of the virus spreading to new geographic regions, new hosts, or by new modes of transmission. A greater understanding of viral adaptation to different selection pressures is also critical for determining the potential for filoviruses to cause large pandemics or to be used as bioweapons.