Nora J. Besansky is a biologist recognized for her work on the genetics of Anopheles mosquitoes that transmit human malaria. In particular, her studies on the species groups responsible for the majority of malaria transmission in Africa highlight the importance of both interspecific gene flow and chromosomal inversion polymorphism as mechanisms that contribute to local adaptation, ecological flexibility, and augmented transmission capacity. She was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Silver Spring, MD. She graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. in biology and from Yale University with a Ph.D. in genetics in 1990. Postdoctoral work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta led to a staff scientist position in the Division of Parasitic Diseases in 1991. In 1997, she joined the faculty at the University of Notre Dame as an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences. She was promoted to Full Professor in 2002 and currently holds the Gillen Chair. She was principal white paper author and coordinator of a National Institutes of Health-sponsored sequencing project: “Genome Analysis of Vectorial Capacity in Major Anopheles Vectors of Malaria Parasites” leading to assembled genomes and transcriptomes of 16 anophelines from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. She was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020.

Research Interests

Genomic research in our laboratory is motivated by an enduring mystery: What makes a good malaria vector? Of the several thousand mosquito species, only Anopheles mosquitoes transmit human malaria, and of the several dozen primary anopheline malaria vectors globally, it is the pan-African species that excel: Why? Most intriguing to us is the fact that nearly every primary malaria vector belongs to its own independent species complex. These complexes are clusters of closely related and morphologically indistinguishable species that nevertheless play profoundly different roles in disease transmission - from primary vector to non-vector. This suggests that the evolutionary transition from non-vector to vector can happen rapidly, and that it has happened repeatedly across Anopheles mosquito diversification. Primary vectors tend to be geographically widespread, locally abundant, ecologically flexible, long-lived, and anthropophilic relative to their non-vector counterparts. Using a variety of genomic approaches including genotyping arrays, population pool sequencing along an environmental gradient, GWAS, systems genetics, amplicon- and whole genome sequencing, our studies suggest that chromosomal inversion polymorphism and genetic introgression are properties associated with primary vectors that facilitate local adaptation, increase ecological flexibility, and enhance vectorial capacity.

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Primary Section

Section 61: Animal, Nutritional, and Applied Microbial Sciences

Secondary Section

Section 27: Evolutionary Biology