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Julie Dunning Hotopp: The Impact of Inter-Domain Lateral Gene Transfer


Title: Assistant professor, University of Maryland School of Medicine
Education: PhD, Michigan State University, 2002
Recommended by: Claire Fraser-Liggett, University of Maryland School of Medicine

When she began working on Wolbachia genomics with the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Steven Salzberg, Julie Dunning Hotopp had no idea she would eventually dedicate her career to investigating the effects of inter-domain lateral gene transfer on human health. It wasn't until she and Salzberg stumbled upon a particularly unusual fruit fly genome that her career hit a turning point. "It turned out the reason it was truly bizarre was that there was an entire bacterial genome [within] the insect chromosome," she says. "[It was] overlooked in the original genome project."

In 2005, she and Salzberg co-authored a Genome Biology paper in which they reported the complete sequence of the bacterial genome they'd found in Wolbachia. The team later confirmed that the bacterial genes had in fact been incorporated into the fruit fly chromosome, which they reported in Science in 2007. Soon after, Dunning Hotopp began to investigate gene transfers from Wolbachia to filarial nematodes as well as whether they contribute to human lymphatic filariasis, a tropical disease that affects populations in developing countries. Equipped with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she's currently investigating potential drugs to target the bacterial component of the filarial nematode genome.

In addition, she'd like to determine how certain bacterial infections appear to affect cancer development as many as 20 years later. "The idea there is that if you get [a gene] transfer from your microbiome, it could disrupt genes," Dunning Hotopp says. "If you disrupt an oncogene, you could get the development of cancer." She recently received a $2.5 million New Innovator Award from NIH to fund that project and others.

Looking ahead

Dunning Hotopp looks forward to obtaining longer sequence reads as a result of the technological advances she expects to see over the next few years. However, she says, these longer reads will come at a price. Dunning Hotopp foresees "huge computational challenges — not just in terms of computing power, which I think we have, but really storing data, moving data around, and bandwidth."

And the Nobel goes to ...

Were she to receive a Nobel Prize, Dunning Hotopp hopes that it would "be for helping improve people's lives."