Fellow studies how infectious fungus mutates to become resistant to treatment Meet Elizabeth Misas

Elizabeth Misas

Elizabeth Misas spends her time with the CDC analyzing the DNA sequences of fungi which cause infection in humans. Through her research the scientific community can find greater understanding with how such fungi mutate to resist medication. (Photo Credit: Jorge Mario Vasquez)

Becoming a biologist has always been Elizabeth Misas’ dream since she was a little girl, originally hoping to become a marine biologist. In high school, she discovered chemistry and molecular biology, which motivated her to instead become a molecular biologist. Along her journey toward achieving a doctorate of biology from the Universidad de Antioquia (UdeA) in Medellín, Colombia she found more than just an interest in chemistry and molecular biology.

“What really marked my path was my time at the Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCM) group of the Corporacion para Investigaciones Biologica-UdeA, where I did my undergraduate thesis, and my master's and Ph.D. thesis, under the tutorship of professors Oliver Clay and Juan Guillermo McEwen,” she said. “There, I discovered the exciting world of mycology and had to learn bioinformatics from scratch.”

Mycology, which is the study of fungi such as mushrooms and yeasts, and bioinformatics, the use of computer technology to collect, store and analyze biological data, played big parts in Misas’ post-doctoral research. She joined on with the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases (DFWED) program and was placed in the Mycotic Diseases Branch (MDB) as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellow.

The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty members with opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.

Here, alongside her mentors, Nancy Chow and Lynette Benjamin, Misas has taken a role studying fungi under MDB’s Data and Quality Team. Her project’s focus is on three fungi: Candida auris, Candida glabrata, and Aspergillus fumigatus. These fungi cause infection in humans who predominantly have weakened immune systems, like chemotherapy patients. Misas noted that the yeast C. auris has been especially dangerous, thanks to its resistance to drugs, easy spread in hospitals and ability to cause severe infection.

Because there are only three types of drugs to combat severe fungal illnesses, Misas’ research is just that much more important. Medicine resistance to even one of these drug drastically impacts the ability for patients to fight fungus related infection.

To study these fungi, she uses whole-genome sequencing (WGS) data to analyze the fungi’s DNA. WGS is a technique used to view the entirety of an organism’s DNA, or genome. WGS is a research tool and is increasingly used in the medical and public health fields. Using this technique, Misas identifies mutations that help the fungus evade antifungal drug treatment. Identifying these mutations is a step towards understanding how the fungi evolve alongside the medicines designed to treat the infection within humans.

While she continues her bioinformatics research, Misas also is preparing a manuscript to be submitted to the Medical Mycology journal, in an article titled “Genomic description of clinical Aspergillus fumigatus isolates, California, 2020.” She has additionally been collaborating on other publications, such as a paper titled “Candida auris Whole-Genome Sequence Benchmark Dataset for Phylogenomic Pipelines” and a chapter in the book Methods in Molecular Biology, volume 2517 about the MycoSNP fungal genome sequencing workflow.

Misas was able to share her team’s findings within the American Society for Microbiology’s poster section and will present another poster for the 11th International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in August, 2022.

Misas describes her fellowship positively. In the beginning she worked remotely, but after the first year she was in the lab in person. As a result, she’s received both the experience of self-driven remote research as well as face-to-face study with her fellow scientists and academics.

Her favorite part of the experience so far has been the variety of her daily tasks and her team. No two days are alike in routine, Misas says. Every day she solves brand new challenges, spends time on preparing content for academic journals and attends informational meetings. Misas says that receiving feedback in so many different backgrounds, from epidemiologists to data scientists, is very enriching.

She is learning much from those around her. Through her fellowship Misas is gaining a greater understanding of how to investigate an infectious disease outbreak, as well as learning more about epidemiology, public health, and bioinformatics.

Misas will continue researching under the DFWED program for one more year. After her time with the CDC has ended, she plans to continue in the field of computational biology and mycology, as well as learn more about public health. For now, Misas recommends the program to young researchers and says it has been a positive experience.

“I have learned a lot, definitely, and the best part is my team. I am surrounded by very talented people with very different backgrounds, who are always willing to teach me new things.”

The CDC Research Participation Program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between CDC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.