Leprosy in nonhuman primates
As part of my doctoral work, I led the first genomic study of leprosy in nonhuman primates (Honap et al. 2018).
Leprosy is an age-old disease that remains highly endemic among the economically underprivileged countries of the world. Traditionally thought to be an exclusively human disease, leprosy has also been observed in wild armadillos, red squirrels, and nonhuman primates. Most cases of leprosy are caused by the bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae.
In this study, we sequenced the genomes of M. leprae strains from a captive but naturally infected chimpanzee, sooty mangabey, and cynomolgus macaque. We showed that these strains are fairly similar to M. leprae strains found in humans, suggesting that leprosy can be transmitted from humans to nonhuman primates and vice versa. This has important implications for the effective control of leprosy.
Mycobacterium lepraemurium genome
Another of my doctoral dissertation projects involved studying how the bacterium that causes leprosy in mice and cats, M. lepraemurium, is related to M. leprae (Benjak et al. 2017). We were the first to publish the genome of this bacterial species.
We found that these two pathogens, M. leprae and M. lepraemurium, are not closely related at all. Rather, M. lepraemurium is genetically most closely related to M. avium, which causes TB in birds. An interesting finding of this study was that the genome of M. lepraemurium is slowly evolving towards a state of obligate parasitism, as evinced by the presence of numerous genes which have lost their functionality.