One of my main ongoing research programs focuses on the ecology and evolution of the lizard malaria parasite Plasmodium mexcianum. Malaria parasites are single-celled organisms that live inside the red blood cells of vertebrate hosts and are transmitted by blood-feeding insect vectors. There are hundreds of species of these parasites, and only 4-5 of those species cause malaria in humans. Many others infect other mammals, reptiles and birds.
Plasmodium mexicanum is a parasite of western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) and is transmitted by sand flies in the genus Lutzomyia. We study this parasite primarily at the Hopland Research and Extension Center in northern California, where research on this parasite and its hosts has been ongoing since 1978. Currently we are using this parasite-host system to explore the effects of severe drought on vector-borne disease prevalence and genetic diversity. An undergraduate working in my lab during summer 2017 is also exploring the interactions between this parasite and another blood parasite that shares the same host.