Evolution: New Emmy Noether group studies interaction of bacteria and insects – news from Leipzig

The German Research Foundation (DFG) brings biologist Dr. Michael Gerth joined the Emmy Noether program and will support his work with up to 1.4 million euros in the coming years. With this funding, Gerth will leave Britain for Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) and set up his own working group at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv). His research focuses on the evolution of specific bacteria that live in flies, bees and other insects.

The bacteria Gerth works with are often very beneficial to their host animals: the tiny housemates, for example, produce toxins that help defend against parasites, or important nutrients like vitamins. The relationship between bacteria and host can even go so far that the bacteria can influence the reproduction of animals.

In some insects, offspring can also develop from unfertilized ovules; in bees, this is how male drones normally develop. “The Wolbachia bacterium can manipulate its host in such a way that only female offspring are born, which is central to the transmission of the bacterium”, explains Dr. Michel Gerth.

In some cases, bacteria also pass from one animal species to another. “So far, little is known about what makes bacteria successful in switching hosts and what consequences the new environment has for them, such as how their genetic material changes as a result of the switch,” explains Gerth.

This is where the new Noether group comes in: In lab experiments with various species of Drosophila, Gerth’s team is studying how the DNA of spiroplasma bacteria changes when they are transferred from one species to another. . In studies with wild bees, the genome of the bacterium Wolbachia needs to be examined in more detail.

“We want to know which strains are particularly common and which are particularly rare in wild bees. By comparing the genomic data we obtain in the lab and in nature, we want to determine if there are genetic patterns associated with successful host switching,” summarizes Gerth. In addition, one must examine what influence environmental factors, such as rising temperatures, have on these processes.

The biologist finds optimal conditions for his research in central Germany: “iDiv offers a unique research environment in Germany and a very good infrastructure for my work. MLU has an internationally renowned zoology department whose subjects complement my areas of research very well”, specifies the scientist.

Michael Gerth, born in 1985, studied biology at the University of Leipzig from 2005 to 2010. In 2015, he obtained his doctorate there with a thesis on the bacterium Wolbachia in bees. He then spent two years researching a European Union Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship at the University of Liverpool in the UK. Gerth then worked as a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University until the very end.

The DFG Emmy Noether Program is for outstanding young researchers at the start of their careers. By leading a junior research group under their own responsibility, they should qualify for a teaching career over a period of up to six years. The program is named after mathematician Emmy Noether, who was the first German woman to graduate in the field of mathematics at the turn of the 20th century.

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