Serap Aksoy, PhD

  • Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases)

Serap Aksoy, PhD, came to Yale as a postdoctoral fellow in 1982 and worked her way to Professor in 2002. From 2002-2010, she headed the Division of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases. She serves as editor in Chief of the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases and chaired both the NIH/NIAID Vector Biology Study Section (2010-2012) and the WHO/TDR, Molecular Entomology BL5 (2008-2012). Dr. Aksoy's lab aims to understand the biology of host-pathogen interactions--in particular in tsetse flies, which transmit African trypanosomes and harbor multiple symbiotic microbes. A graduate of Vassar College (BA) and Columbia University (PhD), Dr. Aksoy has lectured around the world, and maintains ongoing collaborative research programs with the National Livestock Research Institute (NaLIRRI) and Gulu University in Uganda, and Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI) in Kenya. The laboratory at Yale focuses on the development of novel methods to ultimately reduce tsetse populations in the field, or to reduce their ability to transmit disease. Studies in Uganda focus on the epidemiology of Sleeping Sickness disease. Together with BRI and her colleagues at Yale, Dr. Aksoy has been involved in an international training program to expand research capacity in tsetse-transmitted diseases in east Africa. As the EIC of PLOS NTDs, she works to build research and publication capacity for global neglected tropical diseases.

Research interests
Trypanosomiasis, African; Tsetse Flies; Global Health
Research summary

We study the molecular basis of biological complexity that determine host-microbe interactions, with a focus on tsetse flies, insect vectors of the protozoan parasite African trypanosomes. We investigate the molecular aspects of tsetse immunity during parasite transmission with the eventual goal of manipulating these responses to block disease transmission. Tsetse also harbors three maternally transmitted bacterial symbionts, which influence its nutritional and reproductive biology. We characterize the biology of each symbiont using biochemical, genetic, cellular and molecular techniques to understand the evolution and functional significance of each in the context of the dynamic host environment. We developed a paratransgenic approach where we exploit the commensal gut flora to express in the midgut mileu trypanocidal products that can block parasite development. The replacement of natural tsetse populations with the engineered parasite refractory flies can provide a novel approach for control of this devastating vector-borne disease.

Specialized Terms: African trypanosomes; Bacterial symbionts of tsetse flies

  • PhD, Columbia University, 1982
  • Toh H, et al. (2006) Massive genome erosion and functional adaptations provide insights into the symbiotic lifestyle of Sodalis glossinidius in the tsetse host. Genome research 16(2):149-156.
  • Weiss BL, Wu Y, Schwank JJ, Tolwinski NS, & Aksoy S (2008) An insect symbiosis is influenced by bacterium-specific polymorphisms in outer-membrane protein A. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 105(39):15088-15093.
  • Wang J, Wu Y, Yang G, & Aksoy S (2009) Interactions between mutualist Wigglesworthia and tsetse peptidoglycan recognition protein (PGRP-LB) influence trypanosome transmission. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 106(29):12133-12138
  • Weiss BL, Wang J, & Aksoy S (2011) Tsetse immune system maturation requires the presence of obligate symbionts in larvae. PLoS biology 9(5):e1000619.
  • Alam U., Medlock J, Brelsfoard C, Pais R, Lohs C, Balmand S, Carnogursky J, Heddi A, Takac P, Galvani A, Aksoy S. Wolbachia symbiont infections induce strong cytoplasmic incompatibility in the tsetse fly Glossina morsitans. PLoS Pathog 2011; 7(12): e1002415
  • Weiss BL, Maltz M, & Aksoy S (2012) Obligate symbionts activate immune system development in the tsetse fly. Journal of immunology 188(7):3395-3403.
  • Wang J & Aksoy S (2012) PGRP-LB is a maternally transmitted immune milk protein that influences symbiosis and parasitism in tsetse's offspring. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 109(26):10552-10557).
  • Rio, RV Symula RE, Wang J, Lohs C, Wu YN, Snyder AK, Bjornson RD, Oshima K, Biehl BS, Perna NT, Hattori M, Aksoy S. (2012) Insight into the transmission biology and species-specific functional capabilities of tsetse (Diptera: Glossinidae) obligate symbiont Wigglesworthia. MBio. 2012 Feb 14;3(1). pii: e00240-11
International activities
  • Human African Trypanosomiasis Control
    Uganda (2012-Present)
    Develop innovative vector control for HAT

  • Human African Trypanosomiasis Control
    Uganda (2012-Present)
    Develop innovative vector control for HAT

  • Tsetse Transmitted African Trypanosomiasis
    Kikuyu, Kenya (2011-Present)
    Tsetse transmitted Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) has re-emerged and poses a major public health crises in Sub Sahara. There are no vaccines and efficacious drugs for control of parasite infections in the mammalian host. In contrast, control of the vector insect tsetse populations can effectively break the disease cycle. Extensive resources have been generated in the developed country laboratories with respect to tsetse genomics/genetics that can immediately improve the existing vector control tools, while promising the development of future strategies. The ability of products resulting from high-tech research to reach field implementation stages requires the presence of endemic country scientists who are. well-informed in the full potential of the developed technologies, who can evaluate the pros and cons of these solutions, and who can present these perspectives to the general public and to the involved government agencies. In this training program, Yale University scientists are working with the Trypanosomiasis Research Center (TRC) in Kenya to strengthen the biomedical capacity and to acquire and implement the recent advances in applied vector genomics, genetics and bioinformatics to enhance the existing Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) control/management tools. TRC has been identified by a World Health Organization competitive initiative as the lead organization in Africa to coordinate the continent-wide capacity strengthening activities for HAT. A regional network (Eastern African Network of Trypanosomoses, EANETT) consisting of the lead institutions with governmental mandates to work on HAT in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan and Malawi has already made considerable progress in building south-south initiatives. The specific objectives of this program are to: 1) Develop expertise at TRC and their associates to address mechanisms of parasite transmission biology, genetics of vector competence, population biology, and bioinformatics. 2) Strengthen collaborations with the laboratories in the endemic countries in Africa to enable transfer of new technologies and tools relevant for HAT control and promote their integration into the on-going disease control programs. 3) Develop training modules (seminars, workshops and mentored research activities) to increase research capacity for HAT in Africa with a specific focus on vector biology.

    Trypanosomiasis Research Center, Trypanosomiasis Research Center

  • Evidence Based Control Strategies of Sleeping Sickness Vectors
    Kikuyu, Kenya (2011-Present)
    This Fogarty International Research Collaboration award (FIRCA) proposal is on tsetse fly population genetics in order to support the ongoing Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) control activities in East Africa. The parent grant (NIAID R01Al068932, 01/01/2008 to 12/31/2012) addresses the molecular and ecological aspects of the two HAT disease belts (gambiense and rhodesiense) in Uganda with a focus on population and evolutionary genetics of tsetse flies and their parasites and endosymbionts. The co- investigator of this FIRCA, Dr. Johnson Ouma, is an experienced tsetse population geneticist who is now the head of tsetse genomic research and Deputy Director of the national Trypanosomiasis Research Center (TRC) in Kenya. Kenya is at risk of HAT outbreaks due to ongoing epidemics in neighboring Uganda and increased movement of people and cattle (known reservoirs for Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense). Earlier tsetse control efforts in the Lake Victoria basin and in the southern Rift Valley were unsustainable and these regions rapidly became repopulated. It is unknown if the extant G. pallidipes vector populations in Lambwe originated through reinvasion from neighboring populations, or through incomplete elimination of local populations that existed below thresholds of detection. Efforts are underway once again to eliminate G. pallidipes from Lambwe valley and surrounding areas. This project has three aims to: 1) estimate rates of gene flow and degrees of genetic differentiation among G. pallidipes populations around the Lake Victoria basin and in southern Rift Valley, 2) estimate local levels of temporal genetic differentiation and dynamics of G. pallidipes populations from the Lambwe and Nguruman valleys and 3) understand the circulating trypanosome parasite diversity isolated from flies/humans and known reservoir animals in the Lambwe valley. Results will help understand the breeding pattern of G. pallidipes populations in East Africa, and thus identify populations that can serve as potential sources of immigrants into Nguruman and Lambwe. This knowledge is important to the ongoing and planned tsetse control programs and can help develop methods for inclusion or exclusion of adjacent populations to the target population during vector suppression efforts. Knowledge on parasite strains in circulation will also help better understand disease risk and epidemiology.

    Trypanosomiasis Research Center, Trypanosomiasis Research Center

  • Trypanosome, Tsetse
    Kenya (2010-Present)
    Tsetse Transmitted African Trypanosomiasis (Africa)

  • Trypanosome, tsetse
    Kenya (2010-Present)
    Molecular Aspects of Tsetse and Trypanosome Transmission

  • trypanosome, tsetse
    Kenya (2010-Present)
    New Strategies for African Trypanosomiasis Control

  • Tsetse
    Kenya (2010-Present)
    Evolutionary Genetics of Tsetse and its Symbionts

  • Tsetse, tryopanosomiasis
    Kenya (2010-Present)
    Tsetse Fecundity Reduction for Trypanosomiasis Control

  • Sub-Saharan Africa
    Kenya (2010-Present)
    Tsetse - Trypanosome Interaction

  • Education and Training
    China (2010-Present)
    Li Foundation Yale-China Training Program

  • Genetics - Yale-Fudan Collaborative Program
    China (2008-Present)
    The Yale-Fudan Collaborative Program is a co-training program between Yale and Fudan University. Within this program, pre- and postdoctoral students from the Genetics Department of Fudan University conduct research at Yale for a two-year period and return to China to receive their degrees from Fudan. Four students have received their doctoral degrees through this program and two post-doctoral fellows have completed training.

    Fudan University, Fudan University

Current projects
Dr. Aksoy's research aims to understand the biology of host-pathogen interactions; in particular in tsetse flies, which transmit African trypanosomes and harbor multiple symbiotic microbes. Basic studies focus on the immune aspects of trypanosome transmission in tsetse, while the applied studies aim to harness this information to develop biologically sound and novel disease control strategies to interrupt parasite development in the tsetse vector. A second area of research focuses on the molecular and evolutionary basis of symbiosis. The biology of each tsetse symbiont is characterized using biochemical, genomic, genetic, cellular and molecular techniques to understand their functional significance in the context of host ecology.
  • Fulbright Scholar
  • Honorary Fellow
  • Honorary Fellow
  • Research, Innovation and Leadership Award
  • Ambross Monell Foundation
  • Robert Leet and Clara Gutherie Patterson Trust Award
  • Culpeper Foundation Biomedical Initiative Award
  • Columbia University Graduate Scholar Award
  • National Science Foundation Presidential Award for Undergraduate Research
German, Turkish