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Cooper Lab

Principal Investigator

Vaughn Cooper, PhD
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434 Bridgeside Point II
450 Technology Dr.
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Research Description

The primary goal of our laboratory is to understand how bacterial populations evolve and adapt to colonize hosts and cause disease. By studying evolution-in-action, both in experimental populations and in ongoing infections, and using the latest methods in genomic sequencing, we seek to identify mechanisms of bacterial adaptation in vitro and in vivo. We are particularly focused on how bacterial populations form complex communities within biofilms and how cells perceive cues to attach or disperse. We are also developing genome-based diagnostics for bacterial infections.

Our research on the ecology and evolution of bacterial biofilms has enabled our study of two very different topics that trace to a common evolutionary conflict: 1) the origins of multicellular life and 2) evolution within various forms of cancer. We are proud to be part of a NASA Astrobiology Institute that uses experimental evolution to pursue the goal: “To discover the laws that create Darwin’s ‘tangled bank’ remains one of biology’s grand challenges, one that requires understanding how differences among forms are selected for and how interdependence among forms is enforced.”

It is also now clear in the post-genomic age that cancers evolve in crowded spaces that resemble the high variation and mutation rates often seen in bacterial biofilms. The same tension of remaining adherent to clonemates but being metabolically confined, or dispersing to pursue new environments is found both in biofilms and cancers. A long-range goal is to advance understanding of evolutionary dynamics in structured communities, relevant to biofilms, solid tumors, and transitions to multicellularity.

We maintain an active research program studying why genome regions evolve at different rates, and how the forces of mutation, selection, drift, and recombination produce these patterns. A major factor predicting this rate variation is replication timing. We are using experimental and comparative methods to improve genome legibility, understand speciation, and to guide more rational treatment of disease states. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that microbial populations evolve in real time and can produce conspicuous new forms has inspired a high-school curriculum for learning evolutionary biology, ecology, and biotechnology by simple experimentation. Not only do students learn better, they become more engaged in science. We hope to share this curriculum nationwide.

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Lab Members:

Eisha Mhatre, Research Scholar

Melissa Fritz, Research Assistant

Francine Arroyo, Postdoctoral Associate