The Robinson Lab's research activities are grounded in microbial ecology and can be divided into three major project areas: 1) testing hypotheses related to ecological concepts and host-microbiota interactions in the midguts of cabbage white butterflies, 2) understanding the roles of microbial communities associated with insect vectors of disease and 3) understanding microbial diversity in soil-based systems.
Microbial Ecology of Cabbage White Butterfly Larvae
We study the microbial communities associated with three insect systems, one of which is Pieris rapae, the cabbage white butterfly. The larva of this insect is a global pest of plants belonging to the family Brassicaceae, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. to investigate outcomes of host-microbiota interactions. For example, one project focuses on the effects of perturbation on microbiota structure and another investigates how diet and microbiota structure intersect to influence immune response to infectious disease. This arm of the Robinson Lab research takes advantage of our previous work that established that the cabbage white butterfly contains a simple and tractable microbial community, as well as our experience with studying immune response in mammalian systems.
Microbiota associated with Insect Vectors of Disease
In the other two insect systems, we examine how the composition of bacterial communities can influence the ability of pathogenic protozoa to colonize insect vectors. The latter work is the result of Dr. Robinson’s participation in the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program at Howard University. Since 2014, we have traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and worked with Dr. Meshesha Balkew of the University of Addis Ababa Aklilu Lemma Institute of Pathobiology to collect and process insect samples. By analyzing molecular data, primarily from next generation sequencing of specific regions of the 16S rRNA gene, we are able to characterize the microbiota that inhabit Anopheles and Phlebotomus samples collected from Ethiopia.
Microbial Diversity in Soil
The final research area, soil-based systems, is representative of our collaborations with other groups on campus and beyond. This area is also unique in that it encompasses the research to which we contribute as part of a course-based research experience.
A Microbial Analysis of Soil from the African Burial Ground in New York
Among other endeavors, bioanthropologist Dr. Fatimah Jackson, a member of the Department of Biology at Howard seeks to understand the lives of individuals of African descent who were buried in the New York between the years of approximately 1640 and 1795. She seeks to apply modern scientific techniques to samples of the grave soil stored at the Montague Cobb Research Lab, at Howard University. Working with Dr. Jackson and the Cobb Research Lab, we will contribute to piecing together the lives of these early Americans by aiding in the examination the microbiota of grave soils.
The Microbiota of Senegalese Dust
Microbes in dust transported across West Africa and into other parts of the world can survive for hundreds of years. This dust can travel to the Caribbean and to eastern North America as far north as Maine. Working with Dr. Gregory Jenkins, at the Pennsylvania State University, we are interested in understanding the microbiota associated with dust storms that occur multiple times annually in the Sahel of Africa, particularly in the Republic of Senegal. We intend to establish a base of knowledge regarding the microorganisms that are associated with the environment in Senegal with the intention that future shifts in community patterns can be used to identify and - in the best cases - predict potential ecologically, economically and socially important disturbances.
Diversity of Bacteriophages
Recently, there has been a push to engage students in course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). CUREs allow students who might not normally conduct research during the school year, or at all, a chance to engage in the scientific process and contribute to a larger body of knowledge. In the Department of Biology at Howard University, we have chosen to begin our CURE activities early in our students’ careers – as college freshmen, when they can benefit most from the experience. By immersing our students in hands-on research, using research laboratory-grade equipment and techniques, we give them the opportunity explore the world of science as professional scientists experience it. As the coordinator and an instructor of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (PHAGES) course at Howard, Dr. Robinson has led student research on the diversity of bacteriophages that infect mycobacteria, primarily. These students isolate phages from an environmental sample, purify them through successive rounds of infection, and extract DNA for basic profiling. Selected genomes are sequenced and Dr. Robinson guides her classes through the process of annotating the phages' genomes. This research has resulted multiple posters presented by students at the annual Science Education Alliance at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, Howard’s annual research symposium, and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, as well as multiple publications.