RELATED STORY: Rita Allen Foundation Scholars Advance Understanding of Nervous Systems in Health and Disease
Elissa Hallem received her B.A. in biology and chemistry from Williams College and her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Yale University, where she studied the role of odorant receptors in odor coding in the laboratory of John Carlson. She conducted postdoctoral research with Paul Sternberg at the California Institute of Technology. Hallem joined the faculty of UCLA in 2011, and in 2012 she was selected as a MacArthur Fellow. She has also received a John H. Walsh Young Investigator Research Prize from the David Geffen School of Medicine, a Burroughs-Wellcome Fund Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Disease Award, a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award (DP2), a McKnight Scholar Award, a UCLA Dean’s Recognition Award, a Searle Scholar Award and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship.
The Hallem laboratory is studying the neural basis of parasitic behaviors using the host-seeking behaviors of skin-penetrating parasitic nematodes as a model system. Skin-penetrating nematodes infect approximately 1 billion people worldwide, and are responsible for some of the most common neglected tropical diseases. The infective larvae of skin-penetrating nematodes search for hosts to infect using host-emitted sensory cues, yet their host-seeking behaviors are poorly understood. Hallem’s group is conducting an in-depth analysis of host seeking in the skin-penetrating human threadworm Strongyloides stercoralis. They are focusing on the responses of these parasites to human skin and sweat odorants, carbon dioxide and heat. They are comparing the sensory behaviors of S. stercoralis to those of other parasitic nematodes to gain insight into how sensory behaviors differ in species with different host ranges and infection modes. They are also investigating the neural basis of host-seeking behavior. Their studies of the neural microcircuits that mediate host seeking will provide insight into how parasite sensory systems support parasite-specific behavioral repertoires, and may enable the development of new strategies for combating harmful nematode infections.