Summary: Natural products have a long and successful history in combatting pests and diseases. We study how the chemical arms race between specialized vertebrate herbivores and their winter food source provides a co-evolving natural experiment occurring over millennia that has generated diverse and effective sources of drugs yet to be discovered in nature for human benefit. We used the foraging behavior (i.e. plant selection or avoidance) of vertebrate herbivores that specialize on specific plants in winter as a natural bioassay to direct us to plants with biologically active chemicals. We screen those chemicals for their cytotoxicity and propose that those chemicals can be exploited as anti-parasite, anti-microbial and anti-cancer drugs. Because dietary specialists have several mechanisms of resistance to ingested plant chemicals, we investigate whether the plants avoided by these specialists have chemicals that can inhibit mechanisms of chemical resistance. Finding inhibitors of drug resistance can contribute to overcoming multidrug resistance phenotypes in pathogens and cancer. In general, understanding the co-evolutionary chemical arms race between plants and herbivores is helping us discover plants containing chemicals that can be directly toxic to cells and could inhibit mechanisms drug resistance in agents of human diseases.

Minimum Classes: Organic chemistry

Projects: The selected student will be responsible for developing, validating and screening extracts and isolated chemicals for biological activity against a number of pathogens and diseases important to humans, livestock and wildlife. Specifically, students will extract, quantify and identify chemicals from plants that are selected and avoided by wildlife to understand the variation in chemical mixtures and concentrations and predict their bioactivity. Finally, students may work with collaborators to use computational programs to predict metabolic pathways responsible for the synthesis and metabolism of plant chemicals and the biological targets of chemicals and their metabolites.  In addition, students may have opportunities to test extracts from plants for their cytotoxic properties against microbes using established laboratory assays and will help develop and validate new assays.  The student will work collaboratively with professors, postdocs and graduate students in Biology and Chemistry at Boise State University and the College of Idaho in Idaho and at the University of Nevada Reno and University of Wyoming to build a diverse network of mentors who will offer diverse experiences in using nature to inspire advances in chemistry and drug discovery.

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