We study how organisms respond to their environment, focusing on molecular mechanisms used by fungi. We collect and analyze genome-scale datasets to understand how fungi dynamically reorganize their RNA and protein to adapt to environmental change.

How do fungi survive in a changing environment, when they cannot move away from danger or towards food? How do infectious fungi grow in a human body and fight our immune defences? What is special about the small number of fungal species that cause human disease, as opposed to the many that don’t?

Fungi have a toolbox of RNA and protein: when their environment changes they get out some tools and put others away. For example, when fungi are hot, they shut down heat-sensitive processes, and concentrate on making proteins that protect them against heat. We know many things about the effects of heat in some fungi, like the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae that makes beer and bread. Recently, we and our collaborators have found that there is a huge movement of messenger RNAs and proteins inside Saccharomyces when that yeast gets hot, and this seems to help the yeast survive the heat.

We don’t know very much about what happens inside an infectious fungus when it floats through the air, lands in a hot, moist, human lung, and starts an infection. We study this in Cryptococcus neoformans, a different species of yeast, that is estimated to kill at least 600,000 humans per year. Cryptococcus infections are particularly dangerous for people with immune systems weakened by infections such as HIV, or immune-suppressing drugs such as those needed for organ transplants.

Our goals are to understand better the messenger RNA toolbox reorganizations that allow fungi to adapt to new environments, including the human lung. In the long term, this understanding could help us design better diagnosis and treatments for fungal infections. This research also builds understanding of similar and related mechanisms in other organisms, including human cells.