Ales Bucek, Staff Scientist
I have a long-term scientific interest and fascination for the molecular basis of the evolution of novelties in insects. During my Ph.D. at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, Prague, Czech Republic, I studied how the enzymatic properties of pheromone biosynthetic enzymes influence the evolution of sex pheromone communication in moths (Tobacco hornworm moth - Manduca sexta) and Hymenoptera (bumblebees - Apidae: Bombus).
For my postdoc, I am devoting to another extraordinarily evolutionary successful yet understudied insect group: termites. I aim to answer how termites evolved their sophisticated chemical defense arsenal, how do they interact with and adapt to a range of parasites. More generally, I aim to uncover the genomic and transcriptomic underpinnings of their diverse life strategies.
Simon Hellemans, JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow
I obtained my Ph.D. in 2019 from the Evolutionary Biology & Ecology lab at the Free University of Brussels (ULB; Brussels, Belgium). I investigated the ecology and the evolution of the conditional use of sex in a group of phylogenetically related neotropical termites. Notably, we described the first nutritional symbiosis between termites and the endosymbiotic bacterium Wolbachia —notorious for being a master manipulator of arthropod reproductive biology.
I joined the Evolutionary Genomics Unit in November 2019 with a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship for Foreign Researchers. I investigate the epidemiology of endosymbiotic bacteria using a near-complete time-calibrated phylogenetic tree of South American termites. I intend to reconstruct the evolutionary history of these bacterial lineages along the termite phylogeny to determine their rates of infection/extinction and influence on termite speciation and mitochondrial diversity. Lastly, I perform comparative genomics analyses to underpin the true nature of these symbioses, either mutualistic (e.g., nutritional mutualism) or parasitic, and identify their underlying molecular mechanisms.
Nobuaki Mizumoto, JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow (SPD)
I am a behavioral ecologist interested in the evolution of collective behavior and movement patterns of animals. I use a combination of mathematical modeling and empirical experiments to study animals, especially termites. I completed my Ph.D. in 2018 at Kyoto University, studying mate search and collective building in termites. Then, I spent two years at the Arizona State University as a JSPS Overseas Research Fellow, where I focused on the tunneling behaviors of termites and untangled the complex relationship between individual behaviors and tunnel structures. I joined the Evolutionary Genomics Unit with a JSPS Special Postdoctoral fellowship (SPD). I perform a wide range of comparative studies on termite nest building. I compare individual- and group-level phenotypes along phylogenetic trees to unveil the evolutionary history of termite collective behaviors.
Anna Prokhorova, Postdoctoral Researcher
I study microbial interactions within communities. My work is at the interface of microbiology, biochemistry, and biophysics. I obtained my Ph.D. in 2016 from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. I studied exoelectrogenic microbial communities, which can transfer respiratory electrons to an extracellular electron acceptor by the oxidation of organic matter in waste streams, using microbial fuel cells technology for biogas production from livestock waste.
In the Evolutionary Genomics Unit, I investigate microbial interactions in the termite gut. The termite gut is a natural microbial bioreactor digesting wood and producing biofuels. My goal is to shed light on the role of termite gut microbial symbionts and their interactions during lignocellulose degradation.
Esra Kaymak, Technician
I worked this past decade at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), Belgium, in the team of Dr. Olivier Hardy, where research projects focus on plant biodiversity, primarily in African rainforests.
Since early 2021, I have been discovering the thrilling world of termites. No need to say it is a new challenge for me, a challenge that I am more than happy to undertake by joining the Evolutionary Genomics Unit. The exquisite research environment, combined with my love for Japanese culture, makes my stay in Okinawa perfect!
My humble hobbies are baking, visiting new places, and hanging out with friends.
Tracy Audisio, Ph.D. student (JSPS DC2)
My past research experience focused on the taxonomy, phylogenetic relationships, and biogeography of cave obligate spiders. In the Evolutionary Genomics Unit, I am working on sequencing about 50 termite genomes representative of the ecological and phylogenetic diversity of termites. Using this large dataset, I will perform comparative genomics analyses to determine how termite genomes have evolved. I am primarily interested in the evolution of structural variants.
In my spare time, I enjoy going on adventures both above and below ground.
Kensei Kikuchi, Ph.D. student
My name is Kensei. I obtained a bachelor's degree in engineering (material science), and I joined OIST as a Ph.D. student in May 2020. I have a long-time passion for sociobiology. In particular, I am interested in studying how biological and behavioral diversity has evolved. My goal is to identify the factors at the origin of eusociality in social insects. I want to determine the meaning in behaviors and identify the patterns found among different species. In the Evolutionary Genomics Unit, I will work on behavioral experiments to study the effect of group size and caste ratio on individual termite behavior.
Zhuli Cheng, Ph.D. student
I am a 1st-year student interested in evolutionary biology, and I am most fascinated by what genomes can tell us about the billions of years that life went through. In the Bourguignon Unit, I hope to learn how genomes evolve. For that purpose, I am excited to participate in our project that looks at how strains of Blattabacterium cuenoti, an obligate intracellular symbiont living in cockroaches and termites, gradually lost many of their genes over the last 200 million years.
Arno Hagenbeek, rotation student
I am 1st year Ph.D. student broadly interested in microbial biology, particularly microbe-microbe and host-microbe interactions. For my rotation in the Bourguignon unit, I am annotating binned sequences obtained from the termite gut microbiome. In this way, I am helping the unit's efforts to characterize the enzymatic repertoire responsible for the termite's ability to digest wood. In my spare time, I enjoy playing piano, hiking, and martial arts.
Terka Berankova, Research Intern
I joined this unit as a research intern. I am in the third year of my Ph.D. at the Czech University of Life Science Prague. My Ph.D. focuses on understanding the functioning of dead plant biomass degradation by termites. Termites host a specific microbiota in their gut. I use a sequencing approach to obtain information about the identity and function of prokaryotes and eukaryotes present in the gut of termites.
Kazuko Toyoda, Research Unit Administrator
I am an Osakan who has been in love with Okinawan oceans for years and finally made a move to live here in April 2021. Before joining OIST, I have been involved in various business industries over the past 25 years, including airline, entertainment, telecommunication, Solar PV, and other industries. At OIST, I am helping the Evolutionary Genomics Unit to perform research smoothly. I love spending time on the beach, in the ocean, and in my kitchen. I am so excited to join and support the team!