NSF Postdoctoral Fellowships in Biology combine research and training components to prepare young scientists for careers in emerging areas where biology intersects with other scientific disciplines, in this case with mathematics and physical sciences. The Fellows are expected to be leaders of the nation's scientific workforce of the future. This fellowship to Dr. Rodrigo Olarte supports a research and training plan to understand genetic elements, called cryptic alleles, in the fungus Aspergillus flavus which can contaminate foods by producing aflatoxins. Research results are expected to be useful in formulating better control strategies that target the reduction or elimination of aflatoxin contamination in agriculturally important crops susceptible to A. flavus infection such as corn, cotton and peanut. The host institution for this fellowship is the University of Minnesota and the sponsoring scientists are Drs. Georgiana May and Yaniv Brandvain. The Fellow?s training goals include learning mathematical modeling techniques and applying ecological experimentation to determine the origin, composition and distribution of the cryptic alleles in a global context. Educational outreach activities include training and mentoring undergraduates in programs, such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.
Fungi produce a wealth of metabolic compounds but little is known of the evolutionary origin or ecological importance of these diverse compounds. In this research, aflatoxin production by A. flavus is being used as a model system to investigate the ecological factors affecting the evolution of microbial toxins. Cryptic alleles are suggested to have arisen early in the evolution of the species and since been maintained in A. flavus populations for long periods of time. This research aims to understand the functional significance of these cryptic alleles as they pertain to the competiveness of isolates expressing quantitative and qualitative variation in mycotoxin production. The overall goal of this project is to gain a better understanding of how ecological and evolutionary processes affect variation at the aflatoxin gene cluster and population-level variation in A. flavus.