Faculty Spotlight: Frank Aylward

Frank Aylward, Assistant Professor in the College of Science.

November 9, 2021

Microbial communities, or microbiomes, are central to life on earth. Nearly every habitat and organism hosts a diverse community of microbes forming their collective microbiome. Each day we walk through a vast invisible network of environmental microorganisms. And GCC Affiliate Frank Aylward’s research as led him to study microorganisms from both the land and the sea.

Aylward’s first interest in the interface of microbes, ecology, and evolution started in rural southern Arizona where he grew up. His interests led him to complete his undergraduate education at University of Arizona where he studied the origins of multicellular organisms using green algae. He then obtained a PhD in Microbiology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he researched the symbiotic relationship between leaf-cutter ants, cultivated “fungus gardens” where they procure their food, and the commensal microbial community that facilitates the system.

Returning his interests to the aquatic biosphere, Aylward joined the lab of famed marine microbiologist, Edward DeLong. Working at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Aylward explored the ecological function of cyanobacteria in the open ocean and its importance as a marine keystone species.

Aylward joined the Virginia Tech and the Global Change Center (GCC) community in 2017, as assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Aylward’s current research broadly focuses on microbial diversity and genome evolution in multiple different microbial groups, including giant viruses, bacteriophages, and several lineages of bacteria and archaea.

In a 2020 Nature article, Aylward revealed the impact that large, double-stranded DNA viruses, or “giant viruses,” have on eukaryotic organisms and their ecosystems around the globe. “By introducing new genomic material into hosts, viruses can shape the evolution of cellular life through a process called endogenization,” said Aylward.

In an article published earlier that year,  Aylward found, “several giant virus genomes that encode genes typically only found in cells, some of which appear to be involved in metabolic processes,” he added. This work reveals the importance of viruses in eukaryotic evolution and portends what may happen to current species as climate change creates ecological pressure around the world. IGC Fellow and co-author of the study Alaina Weinheimer, is pursuing this line of inquiry further as part of her doctoral degree.

Aylward peering into a colony of leafcutter ants as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (.
Now, Aylward examines microbial genomes with his students.

The Aylward Lab is also interested in examining the ecology and evolution of major bacterial and archaeal lineages across the Tree of Life through broad phylogenomic analysis. This research interest has led Alyward to collaborate with other members of the GCC community such as GCC Affiliates Jeb Barrett, Brian Badgley, and Brian Strahm, and IGC Alumnus Ernie Osburn. Together, they recently published a paper examining relationships of microbial diversity with ecosystem functioning in forest soil samples. Aylward was also part of the GCC Microbiome Working Group, and has co-led “Introduction to Microbial Community Analysis” along with other group members David Haak, Brian Badgley, and Lisa Belden since Spring 2019.

Since his time here, Aylward has garnered numerous awards such as the 2018 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in Ocean Sciences and the 2019 Simons Foundation Early Career Award in Marine Microbial Ecology and Evolution. Additionally, he is the primary investigator of an Infrastructure Innovation for Biological Research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Outside of research and academia, Aylward has taken part in outreach activities such as promoting the Virginia Tech Systems Biology at Blacksburg Community High School and participating as a judge at the 2018 Virginia Tech Research Day.  More recently, Aylward was featured in an episode of the podcast, Finding Genius, where he discussed the importance of studying giant viruses

For more information about his research, visit the Aylward Lab or watch his recent Virginia Tech Life Science Seminar below.

Larger than Life: The Underexplored World of Giant Viruses with Dr. Frank Aylward