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The Joy of Bug-Microbe Partnerships

The Joy of Bug-Microbe Partnerships
Nancy Moran keeps honey bees on a rooftop on the University of Texas at Austin campus so she can study their microbiomes. Photo credit: Julia Robinson

Nancy Moran, an evolutionary biologist at UT Austin, has built a career on groundbreaking findings about symbiotic relationships between insects and their internal bacteria. Among her many honors and awards, she is a National Academy of Sciences member, an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow and a MacArthur "Genius" fellow. She was recently profiled in the journal Science.

Even as a kid, Moran enjoyed collecting and identifying insects. But when she came to UT Austin for the first time, as an undergraduate, she hadn't planned on a career in biology. She initially majored in art, then philosophy. It was in an introductory biology class that her interest in evolution was first sparked and she changed yet again to biology. She eventually came to see that she could use her love of insects to make fundamental discoveries in evolutionary biology.

In a range of insects from bees to aphids, she has discovered how symbiotic bacteria provide nutrients that their hosts can't produce for themselves and protect them from parasites and pathogens. She's also explored how hosts and symbionts evolved together over millions of years, often in a surprisingly tightly synced dance.

Her work on the microbiomes of honey bees (and how antibiotics and pesticides can disrupt them) might eventually lead to a better understanding of the role the human microbiome plays in maintaining our own health. Moran acknowledges there is still much work to be done.

"The host and the symbiont communicate in ways we don't understand," says Moran, the Warren J. and Viola Mae Raymer Chair in UT Austin's Department of Integrative Biology. "We're working to figure that out."

Moran was also featured in a short documentary produced by the University of Texas at Austin's alumni organization, Texas Exes:

Meet the New Faculty Members in Natural Sciences
Student Mindful of What We Owe to Education

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Monday, 21 September 2020

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