With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois. For Fall 2020, we have expanded the spotlight to focus also on the bright, dedicated graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who make up the next generation of innovators and leaders in our community.
Rebecca Batstone, MSc, PhD
Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology
Dr. Rebecca Batstone is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). She works most closely with Dr. Katy Heath, Associate Professor in Plant Biology. Rebecca uses a combination of experimental evolution approaches, genetic manipulations, genomic sequencing, and bioinformatics in order to understand symbiotic microbial evolution. Her work in the lab has specifically focused on analyzing data from a large-scale genome-wide association study, as well as conducting her own experimental evolution study to uncover the genetic underpinnings of how nitrogen (N)-fixing bacteria, also known as rhizobia, adapt to long term N-fertilized conditions. To read more about Rebecca’s research, you can check out her website, or papers on Google scholar page.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
My research journey began as a high school student, where I worked as a volunteer at a harp seal research facility at Memorial University's Ocean Sciences Centre. As a Biology Honors undergrad, I conducted my own independent research in Dr. Paul Snelgrove’s lab where I studied baby lobster behavior. It’s at this point that I fell in love with research, everything from designing my own experiment, collecting and analyzing the data, and even having to present and defend my research! However, my Masters research with Dr. Suzanne Dufour is what introduced me to the wonderful world of microbial symbioses, where I studied the symbiosis between marine bivalves and chemoautotrophic Gammaproteobacteria. It was fascinating to me how both animal and microbe “worked together” to survive in some of the most extreme environments on earth, including deep sea hydrothermal vents. Although my PhD work with Dr. Megan Frederickson at the University of Toronto switched gears to the legume-rhizobium symbiosis, many of the questions that arose during my Masters became more tractable to address, including what mechanisms underlie symbiosis evolution, and how these interactions remain stable over evolutionary time. While my research organisms have gotten smaller in size over the years, from seals to microbes, my research questions are becoming larger in scope, including how microbial evolution impacts host health and surrounding communities.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
As an IGB Postdoctoral Fellow, I have lots of leeway in terms of what projects I work on and who I work with. This flexibility afforded me the opportunity to head up a Synthesis Team comprised of five other postdocs and a graduate student all within the Infection Genomics for One Health (IGOH) theme. While it was fun just to get to know one another, our weekly meetings were pivotal for me in terms of how I now view evolution. The diverse expertise the different team members brought to the table, including viral evolution, anthropology, plant and various other microbiomes, and mobile genetic elements, enabled lively discussions that challenged us to think about our research topics more broadly, and find commonalities that unite our diverse study systems. I’ve also been working closely with Dr. Katy Heath and Dr. Rachel Whitaker to refine many of these ideas into one framework, and even had the opportunity to lead a writing retreat with many of the core faculty within IGOH to get additional feedback. The end result of these valuable conversations is a manuscript that we hope to submit soon for publication, so stay tuned!
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
Being a basic biologist, my work can be used to better predict the course of evolution once we take into account the microbial and symbiotic nature of life. Additionally, my research can help illuminate how microbes can be used to improve host health. In a recent publication in Science, I found that by experimentally evolving microbes with different host individuals over time, microbes rapidly adapted to their host, and in doing so, provided more benefits to that host compared to non-adapted microbes. Our results also suggest that a universally beneficial microbiome is unlikely to exist; rather, the “best” microbiome is likely to depend on the genotype of the host, and microbiomes may require time to adapt to a particular host. Engineering the most beneficial microbiome will thus require a personalized-health approach, tailoring the microbial composition to each individual.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
I believe science outreach is super important for bringing science to a more diverse community, especially young people who may not be exposed to scientific ideas through fun and engaging activities. Interacting with the general public is not only important for educational purposes, especially on topics as pressing as COVID-19, but also puts a face on science, making the information much more personable and impactful. It’s also fun! And brings scientists with diverse backgrounds together, which is always a plus. Fortunately, IGB puts a lot of emphasis on science outreach, providing students, postdocs, and faculty with many opportunities to interact with the general public as well as underrepresented groups.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
I am currently taking an experimental evolution approach to understand how microbes, and rhizobia specifically, adapt to N-fertilized conditions. Such conditions are present in agricultural systems, whereby plants are supplied with high levels of N fertilizer in order to improve yield. However, many studies have shown that by doing so, we are selecting for less-beneficial microbes, either because plants invest less in symbioses, or because microbes are adapting to free-living conditions, or a combination of both. What we don’t know is how this evolutionary shift occurs at the molecular level, and specifically, whether horizontal gene transfer (HGT) plays a role. HGT is the ability of a microbe to acquire an entire set of genes located on a mobile genetic element that enables the microbe to gain new abilities, such as metabolizing new compounds or occupying novel niches. It could be that rhizobia are able to acquire N-adapted plasmids, a type of mobile genetic element, to help them thrive under high-N conditions. Stay tuned to find out!