Melissa Ingala is a biologist cross-appointed with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics and the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology. Her research strives to understand the contribution of gut bacteria (the microbiome) to dietary ecology and evolution in mammals. Her research integrates microbiology, ecology, and evolutionary biology to understand how animals adapt to nutritional challenges, both during the past and into the future.
Ingala’s projects include:
- Determining bacterial metabolic functions that allow bats to specialize on nutritionally incomplete food resources (e.g, blood, fruit and nectar)
- Using genetic metabarcoding techniques to more precisely infer cryptic feeding habits in wild mammals
- Testing for genomic convergence among animals with similar feeding habits
Gut microbiomes are communities of bacteria, viruses, and protists that live in and interact with their host animals. Often, these communities promote host wellbeing by provisioning hosts with metabolites that they cannot produce from food on their own. Ingala’s postdoctoral research leverages genomic and metagenomic tools to understand how key adaptations to diet are partitioned across the host genome and the gut microbiome in bats. Her research will produce strain-level characterization of bacteria, viruses, and protists associated with bats, as well as innovative models for testing for functional convergence in bat lineages that have independently shifted to similar diets.
Ingala earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Fordham University in 2015 and 2016, respectively, where she studied the effects of bat skin lipids on the growth of Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in North American bats. In 2020, she completed her Ph.D. at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History. Her dissertation laid the foundation for bat microbiome research by describing the bacterial microbiota of more than 30 species. For her postdoctoral research, Ingala is working with SCBI research geneticist Jesús Maldonado, Ph.D., and curator Michael McGowen, Ph.D., at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.