Research

Cooperation and Conflict Across Systems

My research investigates how cooperation and conflict shape systems from human sharing to cells within multicellular bodies.  I use computational modeling, laboratory experiments and fieldwork to better understand these processes and the general principles that operate across cooperative systems.  My work addresses both cooperation on small-scales and the problems inherent in scaling-up cooperation to large interconnected complex systems.  My contributions to cooperation theory include the Walk Away model of cooperation (showing that conditional movement favors cooperation) and the Need-based Transfers framework for resource sharing (which can outperform strict account-keeping).  I have also worked on the applications of cooperation theory to cancer evolution including the role of resource conflict in the evolution of invasion and metastasis.


 

The Microbiome and Behavior Project

 

Our microbial inhabitants play important roles in shaping human health, from metabolic disease to depression and anxiety. The Aktipis Lab studies the role of microbes in human behavior as well as the nature of microbe-host interactions. Our current research investigates the role of the oral and gut microbiomes in shaping eating behavior through studies with human subjects. We also apply the frameworks of genetic conflict and cooperation theory in order to better understand the complex interactions between us and our microbiota and the evolutionary pressures that have shaped these interactions. Broadly, the goal of the Microbiome and Behavior Project in the Aktipis Lab is to uncover the fundamental principles shaping host-microbiome interactions and the explore the implications for human eating behavior, social behavior and general well-being.

Current Microbiome and Behavior Project studies include:

Microbial Manipulators and Eating. Our ongoing studies focus on two conditions with profoundly negative implications for human health and wellbeing: obesity and restrictive eating disorders. Using genetic analysis of samples from human gut and oral cavities, in combination with experimental and survey data, we test mechanisms for microbiota involvement in the aberrant eating behavior underlying these disorders.

Microbiome Modulators and Stress. Components of the gut microbiome respond to and affect the response of the host to stressors. Exposure to chronic stress is unequally distributed across populations, as poor communities are subject to higher levels of social and economic stress and are more likely than higher income individuals to live in locations that risk exposure to environmental toxins. Within populations, exposure to acutely stressful events in early life impacts later resilience. Our work focuses on integrating the gut microbiome as a moderator of mental health functioning, and in recovery from acute stress exposure during trauma.

Food Vectors: Meals. Social contact offers opportunities for the exchange of beneficial commensal microorganisms, as well as the possibility for pathogen exposure. In humans, our unique practice of widely sharing food and consuming shared food together provide an important mode of microbe transmission. We are collecting experimental data about whether food and non-food sharing and commensality (meals) affect subsequent social interactions differently.