We are part of the Urban Entomology program at NCSU and conduct research on a broad range of interdisciplinary research involving insect-microbe interactions. Our primary focus is wood-destroying and other structural pests.
Dr. rer. nat. (Ph. D.)
Assistant Professor and Principal Investigator
Entomology and Plant Pathology
Aram was born in what was then the Soviet Union and raised in India. He grew up loving biology and languages - two interests that competed for his time (and space, on his bookshelf). He finally ended up studying insect gut microbiology at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology (Germany), LOEWE center for synthetic microbiology (Germany), and Vanderbilt University (USA).
At the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at NC State, he continues to study and now teaches insect gut microbiology. He is primarily interested in the coevolution of insects with their gut microbiomes. In order to recharge, he likes to draw and (much less frequently) play the bass.
Melbert grew up just outside of DC in northern Virginia and has also lived in Florida and Quebec. His research questions are focused on better understanding the influence of microorganisms on the biology of their host and incorporating existing ecological theory into the world of microbes.
Outside of the lab, Melbert enjoys hiking, fishing, rugby, brewing, listening to music, playing bass, stroking his beard thoughtfully, and just generally rocking out!
Marissa grew up just down the road in Cary, NC. She studied biology at Wake Tech, where she first discovered her love for all things "Arthropoda", and completed her bachelor’s degree in biology at Meredith College, focusing her undergraduate research on entomology. Her research in the Mikaelyan Lab is focused on the effects of diet on the rate of trophallaxis in termites.
In her free time, she likes spending time with her family (especially her dog), photographing insects at the arboretum, drawing, and sharing her love of entomology through volunteering whenever possible!
Ezra (Emily) was born in South Africa, but grew up in Indiana and North Carolina. She is a biology and entomology undergraduate lab technician with a lifelong love of wildlife, animal tracking, and evolutionary biology. Ezra plans to go to graduate school at NC State and find ways to improve people's lives through research in biology and entomology, as well as eventually visit to South Africa to work with animals there.
When not in class, a lab, or being a teacher's assistant, she loves to draw and paint, read about wildlife, hang out with her pet mantis, and drink quite a bit of tea.
Sophia was born and raised on the coast of North Carolina. Living near the beach introduced her to the world of marine biology, invertebrate zoology, and her biggest interest: entomology. She is an undergraduate lab technician majoring in Zoology and minoring in Entomology.
She got her first research experience in the Blaimer Ant Lab at NCSU and has expressed her love of bugs by volunteering in both the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and the NCSU Insect Museum. Outside of classes, internships, and lab work she enjoys making biology-inspired art, prints, and patches!
Aaron grew up in Southwestern Michigan and his home was a short drive from Lake Michigan. While working in different labs during his undergraduate studies in biology at Grand Valley State University, he realized that he wanted to pursue a career in entomology. This led him to Purdue University where he worked with urban pests and investigated basic and applied research questions on how bed bugs respond to heat exposure and other control techniques. At NC state, Aaron will continue to research urban pests in order to enhance entomopathogen efficacy for their control.
When not working on research projects, Aaron likes to spend time with his dogs, other pets, and gardening. He is also an avid consumer books and movies that are primarily in the horror and science fiction genres.
Specific openings will be advertised as and when they are available. However, we are always interested in hearing from potential undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdocs, especially candidates from underrepresented minority groups, even if a posting is not currently active.
Please fill in the contact form on the right. Undergraduates applying to us should mention in their email why they would like to join our lab. Graduate students and postdocs should highlight a specific knowledge gap in the field of pest-microbe interactions that you would like to address in our lab. In your email, please include a link to an online profile (e.g., Google scholar, LinkedIn, or Researchgate). Note that blanket applications will be disregarded.
Insects display a diversity of symbioses that is unmatched in the animal world, ranging from obligate intracellular endosymbiosis to intestinal microbiomes. While only some insect species possess these endosymbionts (e.g., Buchnera or Blattabacterium), all insect species are associated with complex communities of microbes in their guts, also called gut microbiomes.
Studies have shown that insects are colonized by host-specific microbiomes, and that the taxonomic composition reflects the evolutionary history of the hosts.
Our lab uses a combination of classical microbiology, molecular ecology, high-throughput sequencing, and entomology to study the coevolution of microbiomes with wood- and litter-feeding insects. These insects play essential roles in the turnover of lignocellulose in terrestrial ecosystems, but many species have gained notoriety as pests. Regardless, of whether they are beneficial insects or pests, several species have evolved to digest lignocellulose with the aid of their microbiomes.
Lignocellulose is the major structural component of plant cell walls, and is relatively recalcitrant to biochemical attack; the few insect groups among the beetles and cockroaches that thrive on it, have evolved symbiotic mechanisms to digest it.
Termites are exemplars of symbiotic digestion, especially of lignocellulose. They are essentially eusocial, morphologically reduced cockroaches, that evolved 150 million years ago from more primitive, and detritivorous, cockroaches. Many termite species have diversified to feed on lignocellulose in different stages of decay, ranging from sound wood through litter, and humus. Termite microbiomes are not only complex, but also unique in their composition; many of the bacterial and protozoan lineages found in these communities have only distant relatives in other environments.
Symbiotic digestion of lignocellulose involves the efficient breakdown of lignocellulose through a combination of mechanical and enzymatic action - the latter involves contributions from both the host and the microbiome. Despite the relative wealth of knowledge that exists about the mechanism of symbiotic digestion in termites, very little is known about how lignocellulose digestion may have evolved in other cockroach lineages or beetles.
One of the projects in the lab involves understanding the mechanism of symbiotic digestion of lignocellulose in insects feeding on dead wood and litter. We are primarily interested in identifying the symbionts involved in the digestion of different components of lignocellulose, and in the forces driving parallel evolution between these insects and their microbiomes.
The evolution of symbiotic digestion of lignocellulose in termites has been crucial to not just their ecological dominance, but also their infamous success as major structural pests. Termites are responsible for over $5 billion dollars in annual damage, and are currently managed through the use of toxic chemicals. The obligate dependence of termites on their gut microbiomes could serve as the ideal target for the development of ecologically sustainable methods of termite control.
A project in this direction is aimed at understanding the degree to which insect digestion, behavior, vigor, and fitness is influenced by its microbiome. We use a combination of native and invasive species of termites for our experiments aimed at targeted alterations to the gut microbiome; these include Reticulitermes spp., Zootermopsis spp., and Nasutitermes spp. Additionally, for experiments requiring finer control over microbiome composition, we use our gnotobiotic cockroach model based on Shelfordella lateralis.
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