Wilson is an evolutionary biologist. Her integrative approach to the study of insect/bacterial nutritional symbioses has recently advanced understanding of the mechanisms and processes regulating host/symbiont interactions. Intimate symbiotic relationships between insects and bacteria are plentiful and frequently required obligately for growth and reproduction yet, almost nothing is known about the processes mediating these beneficial interactions.
In many systems supported by whole genome sequencing of the microbial symbionts the metabolic basis of a symbiosis is clear. However, in the majority of systems nothing is known about regulation of symbiotic interactions. As some of the most intimate of all symbiotic interactions, the obligate intracellular symbioses of plant sap feeding insects provide an exceptional opportunity to address this gap in foundational knowledge. In 2010 work from Wilson’s group, in collaboration with other members of the International Aphid Genomics Consortium, resulted in the paradigm-shifting insight that symbiotic function results not from host and symbiont partitioning of complementary metabolic capabilities but rather from host/symbiont metabolic collaboration. This insight altered the questions being asked in the field of insect symbiosis and generated a suite of testable hypotheses set to identify fundamental design principles integral to the evolution of insect microbial symbioses.
In early 2014, work by Wilson’s group advanced identification of design principles underlying insect symbioses. In collaboration with the laboratory of Professor Charles Luetje in the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, they used Xenopus frog oocytes to functionally characterize an aphid amino acid transporter that functions at the pea aphid/symbiont symbiotic interface. This amino acid transporter, ApGLNT1, transports the amino acid glutamine. Intriguingly, glutamine transport is competitively inhibited by a symbiont-synthesized amino acid, arginine in such a way that ApGLNT1 acts as the master regulator of amino acid biosynthesis in the symbiosis.
By leveraging insect nutritional symbioses, systems that commonly involve a single host in symbiosis with a single microbial partner, Wilson’s integrative work at the frontier of symbiosis research aims to identify and characterize the general principles governing intimate interactions between eukaryotic hosts and their microbial symbionts; general principles that are anticipated to extend to study of symbioses important to human health.