skip to content

Department of Physics

The Cavendish Laboratory

The European Research Council starting grant will support Dr. Fusco’s research group to develop mathematical methods and experimental validations to predict phage-bacteria co-evolution, a key step to be able to engineer and control microbial ecologies.

The grants worth about €1.5 million are given to early-career researchers, for their promising research projects. Dr. Fusco, who is a well-recognised curiosity driven interdisciplinary researcher, will use these grants to launch her own project – EvoPhage.  

Her research focuses on understanding Bacteriophages, viruses infecting bacteria, that plays a key role in the evolution and ecology of microbial systems. At present, there are two key challenges associated with predicting the evolution of phage: 1) the constantly adapting bacterial host to its environment, and 2) complex dynamics created by multiple processes occurring at vastly different scales, within the cell, between neighboring cells and across the bacterial population. This grant will support Dr. Fusco and her research group to find answers for these challenges through a multi-pronged approach that leverages highly controlled microfluidic experiments to assess how phage infection depends on the physiology of the host, which is mostly unknown. The corresponding data will inform the physical models that predict the potential evolutionary trajectories available to the phage-bacteria system as a function of the environment. The model predictions will be validated by running evolution in real time and observe how these ecosystems really evolve.

Dr. Fusco obtained her BSc and MSc in in theoretical physics in Milan. Subsequently, she moved to the US to pursue a PhD in Computational Biology at Duke University, followed by a postdoc in physics and evolutionary biology at Berkeley. She started as a lecturer at the Cavendish in 2018, where she uses tools from statistical physics and soft matter on one side, and molecular and evolutionary biology on the other side, to understand the fundamental rules that govern the evolution of microbial systems.

Her current research on understanding how phage-bacteria systems evolve is critical to design microbial communities with specific functions - both for agricultural and medical applications. Specifically in the latter, the increase in antimicrobial resistance is urging for a need of new methods to fight infectious diseases, and phage therapy is gaining popularity in this context. At a higher level, understanding viral evolution in these tractable systems can offer insight into how other viruses, including human viruses, emerge and evolve.

The ERC starting grant will boost her research group’s efforts to find solutions for the challenges associated with predicting the evolution of microbial ecologies, with implications in addressing environmental and health needs in the real world.

“The ERC grant will allow us to answer fundamental biological questions about phage-bacteria interactions and their evolution pushing the current boundaries in the fields of microscopy, synthetic biology and multi-scale physical modelling”, shares Dr. Diana Fusco.

Image: Plaque of a genetically modified T7 phage with fluorescently labeled capsid proteins.

Image Credit: Diana Fusco