The protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii is estimated to infect over 2 billion people worldwide, including approximately 20% of Americans. This highly prevalent parasite is adept at establishing a long-term chronic infection that can reactivate to cause serious acute disease in immunocompromised or pregnant people. Although there are some limited treatments available to treat this acute stage of the infection, these therapies often cause toxic side effects, or allergic reactions and can be unsuitable for use in vulnerable patients. Furthermore, the chronic stage of the parasite is currently incurable.
The goal of the Jeffers lab is to understand how the parasite activates or “switches on” gene expression to drive parasite growth and transition in its life cycle and cause disease. This complex process is influenced by a variety of factors, but we are currently interested in epigenetic mechanisms of control, specifically the contribution of bromodomain proteins. These proteins “read” gene activation marks on the chromatin to recruit other complexes that regulate transcription. Determining the role of the bromodomains in regulating Toxoplasma gene expression is not only a fascinating biological question but could also contribute to the development of more effective anti-parasitic drugs. We are now extending our interests in parasite gene expression to investigate precisely how the bromodomain proteins directly regulate the transcriptional initiation machinery and the factors that are necessary to activate a gene. We use an array of genomic, proteomic, molecular and cellular biology approaches to answer these questions.