2014 Research Report

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Understanding microbial evolution allows scientists to approach some of today’s most pressing issues in new ways

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University of Idaho, College of Science faculty member Chris Marx working in the lab

Examining Evolutionary Paths

Biology professor predicts bacterial evolution to protect, help humans

By Tara Roberts
Photos by UI Photo Services

Chris Marx studies evolution at the microscopic scale, peering into the rapidly changing world of bacteria.

“Evolution is something that happens, and happens quickly enough to be observed and quickly enough to matter,” says Marx, an associate professor of biological sciences who recently came to UI from Harvard University.

Understanding microbial evolution allows scientists to approach some of today’s most pressing issues in new ways. Marx not only studies the effects of evolution, but also develops mathematical models to predict how bacteria may change in the future.

Many major medical problems, such as microbial disease, cancer and antibiotic resistance, have roots in evolution, Marx says. “If you don’t consider how quickly things change, you can be left rather behind in terms of disease.”

Evolution is often working against medicine – for example, quickly evolving bacteria can adapt to new antibiotics in a matter of years or months, rendering the medicines ineffective against infection. But models like Marx’s could give pharmaceutical developers a way to anticipate bacterial adaptations and design antibiotics accordingly.

Marx’s own work focuses not on using evolution to fight harmful bacteria, but investigating ways to harness the abilities of helpful ones.

“If the interests of the organism and you are aligned, then natural selection can get you what you want,” Marx says.

With metabolic engineering, scientists can use bacteria to produce fuels, chemicals, or feed for animals by guiding a bacterial species’ evolutionary path so it expresses certain helpful characteristics, Marx says.

Much of Marx’ research has focused on one species, Methylobacterium extorquens, which lives on the surface of plants. Marx studies the species to better understand broad evolutionary and ecological questions, as well as find applications for the methanol-eating bacterium. He co-founded a company in Massachusetts that uses Methylobacterium as a food source for aquaculture, such as farmed trout.

Marx joins a strong community of evolutionary biologists at UI, centered on the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies, or IBEST. Marx says he plans to contribute a different angle to the university’s evolutionary research with his focus on understanding biological functions from a mathematical perspective. In fact, he is the first hired among four new professors in physics, mathematics, statistics and biology who will work to bridge their disciplines at UI – leading to new approaches, new ideas and new solutions.