College of LAS « Illinois

Microbiology professor to receive $1.5 million for pioneering research

Rachel Whitaker recognized as Allen Distinguished Investigator

Rachel Whitaker has been named an Allen Distinguished Investigator.
Rachel Whitaker has been named an Allen Distinguished Investigator.
A professor of microbiology at Illinois has been named an Allen Distinguished Investigator by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, which will bring $1.5 million over the next three years to her research of microbial evolution.

Rachel Whitaker, leader of the Infection Genomics for One Heath research theme at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, is one of five new ADIs recognized by the Frontiers Group for pioneering research in epigenetics, aging, and evolution. Each ADI is funded at $1.5 million over three years.

The ADI program supports early-stage research with the potential to reinvent entire fields. Investigators are considered to be passionate thought leaders, explorers, and innovators who seek world-changing breakthroughs. The Frontiers Group provides these scientists with support to produce new directions in their respective fields.

Whitaker said the award will enable collaborative research in a critical realm of understanding.

"Viruses and other mobile genetics elements do not follow the rules of classical Darwinian evolution. Individual organisms share mobile DNA, forming a dynamic network of genetic connections. Measuring and modeling the dynamics of mobile DNA will revolutionize our understanding of the evolutionary process itself," said Whitaker. "This Allen Distinguished Investigator award will enable interdisciplinary collaboration among colleagues at University of Illinois, University of Chicago, and Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. Stepping outside our traditional silos, we will integrate our expertise toward the common objective of developing this promising new evolutionary paradigm."

Whitaker's award in the area of microbial evolution focuses on recent research which has unearthed regions of the genome that are capable of moving rapidly between cells, creating a sea of dramatic and unpredictable genetic changes. These mobile genetic elements (MGEs) are particularly exploited by infectious bacteria, which evade antibiotics through rapid evolution.

While the scientific response to infectious disease has focused on identifying new ways to target and kill bacteria, antimicrobial resistance, virulence, and many other properties of pathogens are evolutionary problems driven by mobile elements. An evidence-based predictive understanding of the evolutionary forces that drive the emergence and spread of these traits is needed in order to stop them. Whitaker's project will create models of MGEs and their evolutionary roles within a human system, and compare and refine those models against longitudinal data in order to capture and better understand this crucial evolutionary process.

Tom Skalak, executive director of The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, said each of the ADI awards have been given to researchers with bold ideas and new perspectives required to make big leaps in bioscience.

"Epigenetics, aging, and evolution are all fields with great impact on human health and well-being, but that currently face significant gaps in knowledge,” Skalak said. “With these awards, we hope to make strides toward the kind of breakthrough insights that can change the direction of an entire area of research."

The other ADI program award recipients were Fei Chen, Broad Institute, and Jason Buenrostro, Broad Institute and Harvard University; Jan Ellenberg, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, and Ralf Jungmann, Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry & LMU Munich; Charles A. Gersbach, Duke University; and Steve Horvath, University of California, Los Angeles.

Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

Related Topics

  • Microbiology
  • Faculty honors
  • Faculty research
  • Life science
  • School of Molecular and Cellular Biology
  • 2017