Outlaw receives major congressional grant

Diana C. Outlaw

A grant from the world’s foremost medical research organization is assisting a Mississippi State faculty member with her innovative work on the specific properties of malaria parasites.

Diana C. Outlaw, who has served as an assistant professor of biology since 2009, is using the $81,712 congressional award from the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to gain a deeper understanding of malaria parasite emergence in new host species, such as humans and wildlife.

“This study is innovative because it represents the first taxonomically comprehensive inventory of genes that may explain how malaria parasites adapt to novel hosts, and it is particularly timely because many recent studies have shown host shifts between humans and apes and between birds and bats,” explained Outlaw.

As an evolutionary biologist, Outlaw specializes in phylogenetic systematics. In other words, she said, she seeks to better understand how groups of organisms are related to each other through their evolutionary history.

Susan Perkins at the Museum of Natural History in New York is a collaborator on this project, and she actually published the first big phylogenetic tree of malaria parasites back in 2002 as part of her dissertation work, so she really pioneered this field,” Outlaw said.

As part of the project, more than 40,000 mosquitoes from across the state of Mississippi have been collected, explained Outlaw, a general biology master’s graduate of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California.

Because mosquitoes are vectors for diseases other than malaria, Outlaw said sharing her lab’s samples and data with other experts at Mississippi State and in the local community can contribute to additional discoveries.

“My graduate student David Larson extracted DNA from nearly all of those samples for our purposes, and we’re also making those samples available to other labs, such as those at the College of Veterinary Medicine that want to look at West Nile virus,” she said.

“It makes it that much easier to expand the types of questions that we can answer when you have a community of colleagues like I have here at Mississippi State,” added Outlaw, also a general biology doctoral graduate of the University of Memphis.

Outlaw expressed particular appreciation for the assistance of Extension professor Jerome Goddard, Extension professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology; and Andrea Varela-Stokes, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s basic sciences department.

According to Outlaw, the age of the malaria parasite lineage at the extant -- or the ones that are around today -- is roughly 20 million years old. As geographic areas are explored, more malaria parasites lineages or species can be found, she said.

“In adding all of these new species, we’re growing this phenomenal tree of life of these parasites -- thousands and thousands and thousands of species rich -- and that can more broadly inform us of how life evolves,” Outlaw said. “There’s so much more diversity in life on Earth than we even realize, and the deeper we look, the more we find. That’s what makes science great.”

Rick Travis, interim dean of MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, said Outlaw’s accomplishment is one that “speaks to the caliber of the quality of our faculty in biological sciences.”

“This is a very competitive program, and we are excited that Dr. Outlaw has received this award,” Travis said.

For more information about Outlaw and her research endeavors at MSU, visit http://dco29.biology.msstate.edu/The_Outlaw_Lab.html.

One of 27 institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has conducted and supported basic and applied research that has led to new therapies, vaccines, diagnostic tests and other technologies that have improved the health of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world for more than 60 years.

Part of the College of Arts and Sciences, MSU’s biological sciences department offers bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, microbiology and medical technology, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in biological sciences and a master’s in general biology distance program for science teachers. For more on the department, visit biology.msstate.edu.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.

Sasha Steinberg | Public Affairs

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