Tiny Organisms Yield Big Returns for UM Early Career Researcher

A picture of Brandon Cooper with arms crossed
Brandon Cooper, a UM evolutionary geneticist, recently earned a prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

MISSOULA – Endosymbionts are little critters that actually live inside the cells of other organisms. Brandon S. Cooper, a University of Montana evolutionary geneticist, recently earned a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study these organisms – especially how they interact with their hosts and the environment – which could help improve health for a huge swath of the world’s population.

Cooper’s award is from the Faculty Early Career Development Program. CAREER awards are one of the most prestigious NSF awards, given to promising early career faculty members to provide a foundation for a lifetime of leadership integrating education with research.

As further proof of Cooper’s rising star at UM, he already earned a $1.8 million Outstanding Investigator Award for early stage researchers from the National Institutes of Health. Then in collaboration with UM Professor Jeffrey Good and other faculty at UM, Cooper also brought in about $1.5 million from NIH to work on SARS-CoV-2 surveillance and evolution in Montana.

All told, he’s pulled in about $6 million in research funding since arriving at the University in 2017.

“I’m thrilled and very grateful to have such strong NSF and NIH support,” he said. “This new award will enable us to answer exciting new questions while providing novel educational opportunities to students in Montana.”

Cooper’s lab works on the most common known endosymbionts in nature, studying how they survive and persist inside the hidden world of a cell’s interior. Specifically, he and his lab members study endosymbiotic Wolbachia bacteria, which infect about half the insects on the planet. When placed inside mosquitoes, Wolbachia variants associated with fly hosts that Cooper studies block arboviruses that cause human diseases such as dengue.

Cooper said the World Health Organization recommends further developing Wolbachia biocontrol efforts like the World Mosquito Program, which aims to protect 500 million people from disease by 2030 by establishing pathogen-blocking Wolbachia in mosquito populations.

“Our work assesses Wolbachia-host interactions in many natural systems to better understand how these bacteria spread and establish,” said Cooper, who is an assistant professor in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences. “Our broader research goal is to understand why Wolbachia are the most common endosymbionts in nature.”

Despite being so common, Wolbachia prevalence varies through time and space in many host species.

“We will unravel the genetic interactions between Wolbachia and their hosts,” Cooper said, “as well as interactions with environmental factors like temperature, which influence Wolbachia prevalence in host populations.”

He is excited the new funding includes components to help educate and train first-generation and Native students in Montana.

“I am a first-generation college student myself,” he said, “and I hope to make science and STEM careers more accessible to students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.”


Contact: Brandon S. Cooper, assistant professor, UM Division of Biological Sciences, 406-243-5122, brandon.cooper@mso.umt.edu, @drosobachia.