Investigators in the Forney Lab perform laboratory, clinical, and field studies to explain temporal and spatial patterns of microbial diversity. Included are projects that focus on inter- and intra-species competition and adaptive evolution in spatially structured environments such as biofilms and laboratory microcosms. Others seek to understand the dynamic behaviors of microbial communities in a range of habitats, with a focus on ecological networks, succession, and responses to perturbations. In recent times many of these studies have centered on evolutionary medicine with an emphasis on the vaginal microbiome and women’s reproductive health. Our work is highly interdisciplinary in nature and performed in collaboration with mathematicians, statisticians, bioinformatics scientists, physicians and clinical scientists at the University of Idaho and elsewhere.
The microbiota normally associated with the human body have an important influence on human development, physiology, immunity and nutrition. The vast majority of these indigenous microbiota exist in a mutualistic relationship with their human host, while others are opportunistic pathogens that can cause both chronic infections and life-threatening diseases.
Much of our research has focused on determining the kinds of bacterial communities present in vaginas of asymptomatic healthy women. These communities play a critical role in maintaining health by creating a low pH environment that is inhospitable to non-indigenous organisms.
Studies of natural and experimental biofilms provide a way to explore the importance of spatial structure on maintenance and generation of diversity in microbial ecosystems. Biofilms are complex communities of microorganisms attached to surfaces and encased in an intricate matrix of extracellular polymeric substances which serve to create complex environmental gradients. Relative to their planktonic counterparts, cells within biofilms can exhibit exceptional resistance to antibiotics and disinfectants. Capable of forming on many indwelling medical aids, such as catheters and artificial joints, biofilms pose a significant risk of infection in humans. In industrial settings they enhance pipe corrosion, decrease the efficiency of heat transfer in water-cooled systems, and adversely affect drinking water quality. more...
Biodiversity and Biogeography
The diversity of prokaryotes on Earth is unfathomable, with some estimates as high as ~1017 total species.1
This mind-numbing statistic is reinforced by work in comparative genomics that has shown remarkable diversity between and within species. Despite the wealth of information that has been gathered to document microbial diversity, the evolutionary and ecological processes leading to the emergence and maintenance of this diversity are largely unknown. more...