Our research examines genetic and functional diversity of bacteria in the natural environment, especially in the context of symbiotic associations.
As the most ancient and diverse form of life, bacteria harbor the majority of the planet's biomass and form the foundation of our biosphere. Microbes drive key biogeochemical cycles and generate more than half of the oxygen we breathe. Beneficial, symbiotic bacteria perform essential functions for many plants, animals, fungi, and protists and are woven into the evolutionary trajectories of these groups. Globally, bacteria outnumber eukaryotic cells by several orders of magnitudes, and your own body contains ten times more bacterial cells than human cells. Without bacteria, other organisms would not have evolved and could not survive today.
Genomic approaches offer valuable tools to explore the microbial world in which we live. Molecular datasets help us understand how and why bacterial genomes change over time, clarify the physiological and genetic diversity contained within complex microbial communities, and shed light on microbial responses to environmental challenges. Recent technological advances let us address these questions at a scale unimaginable just a few years ago.
Fascinated by the ecological significance and evolutionary success of microbes, Jennifer Wernegreen joined Duke in the fall of 2010 as an Associate Professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment. Jen's research group integrates evolutionary, population genetic, and molecular approaches to clarify mechanisms driving genome change in bacteria. Much of her current work focuses on genome dynamics in bacterial symbionts associated with invertebrate hosts. These microbes include obligate mutualists that provision essential amino acids and other nutrients, as well as bacterial parasites that hijack their hosts' reproduction. As representatives of distinct symbiotic lifestyles, these bacterial partners are useful models to examine the genomic consequences of diverse species associations.
After completing her undergraduate studies at Earlham College (1992), Jen received her Ph.D. in Biology from Yale University under the guidance of Margaret Riley (1992-1998). She then studied as a postdoc with Nancy Moran at the University of Arizona (1998-2000). Prior to joining Duke, she was a faculty member at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (2000-2010).