Gena Sbeglia, PhD Student - Department of Ecology and Evolution
My interest in biology began with the study of social behavior. For my Master's thesis, I focused on the effects of food, proximity and kinship on patterns of affiliation and aggression in semi free-ranging ringtailed lemurs at Duke Lemur Center. I am currently working towards my Ph.D. under the advisorship of Drs. Daniel Dykhuizen and Patricia Wright. Over the past few years, my interests have expanded to studying how patterns of social behavior influence disease transmission. While mechanisms of transmission are both environmental and social in nature, there are disproportionately few studies that focus on how social behavior influences the movement of pathogens. Those studies that do address the link between social behavior and pathogen transmission are not designed to do so within the context of a long-term, well-documented social group using genetic techniques to unambiguously identify occurrences of transmission. Therefore, I propose to test the hypothesis that social relationships predict patterns of E. coli transmission in ringtailed lemurs (Lemur catta) using a novel and rapid genetic method that corrects for the weaknesses of other studies and provides the most direct test of the predictions associated with socially facilitated disease transmission. More specifically, I will correlate patterns of social interaction with the incidence of individual strains of fecal E. coli using a combination of two methods: genetic fingerprinting of E. coli isolates using rep-PCR and a high throughput method where I will amplify and sequence a single highly variable locus in the E. coli genome directly from a fecal sample without culturing individual bacterial isolates.
Although E. coli can be both pathogenic and a normal component of intestinal flora, it is an appropriate proxy for testing the relationship between social behavior and pathogens because: 1) E. coli is near ubiquitous in lemurs, allowing us to infer patterns of transmission among all group members, and not just those infected by an occasional pathogen. 2) Animals carry multiple strains of E. coli at a time, one of which is present long-term at high frequency (i.e. resident strains, all others are transient). Thus, resident strains can act as bacterial identifiers for each individual, allowing us to determine every animal's role in transmission.
This study has the potential to identify social interaction as a route of E. coli transmission, which may implicate social behavior as being important in the transmission of other pathogenic bacteria. Furthermore, documenting the spread of a horizontally transmitted bacteria using genetic methods provides information about the movement and interactions of species that may allow us to understand dispersal and demographic dynamics of host populations and identify potential vectors of disease. This project may also show the potential of a one locus (as opposed to 6-7 loci for MLST) high throughput sequencing approach for certain types of genetic questions. This method may allow inexpensive and rapid sequencing of every E. coli isolate in a sample without having to culture and isolate individual colonies. It can also potentially offer easy diagnosis of E. coli-related diseases, which affect 160 million people yearly and kill two million more.
Publications and Select Presentations: Sbeglia, G.C., Tang-Martinez, Z., Sussman, R.W. 2010. Effects of food, proximity, and kinship on the social behavior of ringtailed lemurs. Amer. J Primatol. 72:981-991.
Cahill, A.E., M.E. Aiello-Lammens, M.C. Fisher-Reid, X. Hua, C.J. Karanewsky, H.Y. Ryu, G.C. Sbeglia, F. Spagnolo, J.B. Waldron, O. Warsi, and J.J. Wiens. In press. How does climate change cause extinction? Proc. Roy. Soc. B. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1890*
Sbeglia, G.C. March 2011. Presented at the Ecology and Evolution Retreat, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Patterns of affiliation and agonism in a ringtailed lemur society: Tests of the socioecological model and other hypotheses.
Sbeglia, G.C., Tang-Martinez, Z., Sussman, R.W. August 2008. Presented at the Animal Behavior Society Annual Meeting, Snowbird, UT. The characterization of affiliation and agonism in a ringtailed lemur society: preliminary results.
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