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Rachel Keener (Duke University)

Evolution of a novel plague receptor discovered through natural human diversity

Fall 2021 Graduate Student Award in Pathogenic and Commensal Organisms


By leveraging natural genetic diversity in a cellular genome-wide association screen of Yersinia pestis infection, I identified a genome-wide significant non-synonymous variant in a cell surface receptor gene. Based on my preliminary data, I propose this may be a previously unrecognized receptor for Y. pestis in human cells. As Y. pestis can naturally infect many animal species, I plan to investigate the evolutionary consequences of human-Y. pestis interaction on the novel plague receptor along different animal lineages. Additionally, it is not yet clear what the bacterial ligand for this receptor may be. By performing co-immunoprecipitation mass spectrometry analysis, I will identify the bacterial protein necessary for the interaction. Preliminary results suggest that other closely related bacteria do not utilize this receptor, and so I will investigate the possibility that Y. pestis gained the use of the receptor through horizontal gene transfer. Overall, this project will explore the functional conservation and pathogen specificity of these cell surface receptors through comparative genomics and functional assays of Y. pestis cell infection.