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Brittany F Peterson


  • Doctoral Candidate
Whistler Room 237A

I am a 4th-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. 

Broadly, my research focuses on understand the co-evolution of termites and their over 4,000 symbiotic microorganisms. The eastern subterranean termite, Reticulitermes flavipes, is an important economic pest which has been studied for its unique ability to live on a diet of wood. This complex community of microbes within the termite hindgut creates a complex ecology which is relatively unexplored.  Recently, the interplay between insect hosts, symbionts, and physiological processes (like digestion and immunity) has been emphasized in the literature as an area needing investigation. My research objectives aim to use the termite gut community to investigate how a complicated network of organisms can collaborate and contribute to these processes. My project specifically focuses on understanding how microbes in the R. flavipes gut help this termite digest wood and fend off pathogen challenges. Thus far my research has demonstrated that bacteria are playing a significant role in termite digestion, in addition to the previously understood contributions of protists. I'm currently looking at how the presence and absence of symbionts in the termite gut effects how they defend against pathogens. My last objective takes a global, transcriptomic approach to evaluate the contributions of host and symbionts to digestion and immunity.

Ultimately, this research leads to a better understand of co-evolution between an animal host and a consortium of microorganisms, which has broad implications across the tree of life. I think insects make very practical models for this type of research because of their importance economically, medically, and agriculturally. After graduating in May of 2016, I hope to continue work studying insect symbiosis.