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Brittany F Peterson


  • Doctoral Candidate
Whistler Room 237A

I am a 5th-year Ph.D. student working with Dr. Michael Scharf in the Department of Entomology. I came to Purdue in 2011 through the PULSe Interdisciplinary Life Sciences program in the Molecular Evolutionary Genetics training group. My anticipated graduation date is May 2016, and after graduation I plan to continue working to understand insect-microbe associations.

My research focuses on the interaction between the eastern subterranean termite, Reticulitermes flavipes, workers and their associated microbiota. R. flavipes, is an important economic pest which has been studied for its unique ability to live on a diet of wood (lignocellulose). Without the help of symbiotic protists in their guts, termite workers cannot survive on a wood diet long term. In addition to the essential protist species, R. flavipes termites house over 4,000 species of prokaryotes. So the gut of a single worker termite boasts representatives from all three domains of life: Eubacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. The collaboration of these microbes with each other and their host have contributed to the success of termites. For my dissertation, I aim to clarify the role of prokaryotes in termite digestion and immunity using a combination of antimicrobial treatments, basic molecular biology/biochemistry, and next-generation sequencing technologies. To test the hypothesis that prokaryotic symbionts in the termite gut play a role in termite nutrition and immunity, I have quantified the impact of symbiont removal on cellulolytic activity, characterized the effect of four antimicrobial compounds on gut microbe population structure, and determined the extent to which symbiont removal increases termite susceptibility to pathogen infection.  Understanding the role of bacterial influence in the lower termite consortium provides a framework for teasing part complicated evolutionary histories, innovating novel approaches to pest control, and providing new perspectives for biofuel production. 

Recent Publications:
Benoit, JB, Adelman, ZN … Peterson, BF (33/80)… Schal, C, and Richards, S. 2015. Unique features of the
        bed bug, a global human ectoparasite, identified through genome sequencing. Nature Communications. In press.

Peterson, BF, Stewart, HL, and ME Scharf, 2015. Quantifying symbiotic contributions to lower termite
digestion using antimicrobial compounds. Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 59, 80-88.

Sen, R. Raychoudhury, R, Cai, Y, Sun, Y, Ulrike-Lietze, V, Peterson, BF, Scharf, ME, and DG Boucias, 2015.
Molecular signatures of nicotinoid-pathogen synergy in the termite gut. PLOS ONE 10, e0123391.

Zhao, C, Escalante, LN, … Peterson, BF (46/69) … Stuart, JJ, Richards, S., 2015. A massive expansion of
effector genes underlies gall-formation in the wheat pest Mayetiola destructor. Current Biology 25, 1-8.