Escherichia albertii: an avian and human pathogen

Escherchia albertii is a recently described species that is considered to be a diarrheal pathogen of humans. The species has also been implicated as the causative agent of mass mortality events of birds in the northern hemisphere. The pathogen has been isolated from over eight species of native Australian birds as well as from poultry. It is particularly common in the Canberra region and very prevalent in magpies, with as many as 40% of magpies tested harbouring the pathogen. However, we have little understanding of the impact of the pathogen on native bird populations.

There is some evidence to suggest that isolates of E. albertii from humans differ from isolates taken from birds. However, we do not know if strains infecting birds are capable of causing disease in humans or vice versa. Nor do we understand why the prevalence of the pathogen is so high in Canberra magpies. Finally, we have little understanding of the within host dynamics of E. albertii or of its interactions with other gut bacteria.

This project will attempt to determine if there are fixed trait differences between human and bird isolates of the pathogen using comparative genomics and phenotypic approaches. In collaboration with veterinarians and wildlife carers in the Canberra region, the prevalence of E. albertii in magpies will be monitored in order to determine if pathogen prevalence varies seasonally or spatially. Chickens will be infected with different strains of E. albertii in order to determine the within host dynamics of the strains. The research will provide the student with experience in a variety of basic microbiological techniques and familiarity with a variety of molecular techniques including primer design, PCR-screening and DNA sequencing. Data analysis will involve a variety of comparative genomics, phylogenetic and statistical methods. No previous experience with micro-organisms is required. This project is suitable for a July start.