BOZEMAN — As a college freshman, Alex Washburne already had his dream job: capturing lizards in the arid grasslands of New Mexico. He later went on to study snails, analyze stock prices for a hedge fund and collect scat for a major elk study around the Rockies.

But it wasn't until he crashed his rear-wheel drive truck for the seventh time while pulling a mobile lab through the mountains that he knew what he really wanted to do. Parked on the side of the road, his dog Jack by his side, Washburne said, "I realized my time would be better spent doing math than collecting elk poop."

Now a research scientist in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Montana State University, Washburne and his collaborators from MSU, Duke University and the University of California San Diego developed a novel mathematical tool to better understand disease and manage pandemics. They explained it in February in Ecological Monographs, a scientific journal of the Ecological Society of America. The paper, on which Washburne is lead author, is titled “Phylofactorization: A Graph Partitioning Algorithm to Identify Phylogenetic Scales of Ecological Data.” The full text is online HERE.

Alex Washburne, research scientist in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Montana State University (MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

"Publishing in Ecological Monographs is a great honor that is rare for a junior scientist and particularly rare for a postdoc," said Raina Plowright, Washburne's mentor and an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science.

Washburne said his team found a way to work with "impossibly complex biological systems" and massive data sets by linking the theory of evolution to biological data sets. The tool they developed combines computer modeling and Darwin's tree of life to help researchers simplify and focus their work.

The tree, also known as a phylogenetic tree, shows the relationships between organisms, whether they are living or extinct. Since organisms living on the same branch of the evolutionary tree share certain characteristics, scientists can organize large groups of organisms according to common traits, Washburne said. Based on the location of those organisms on the tree, scientists can guess where a newly discovered organism might fit and how it could act. They can predict which microorganisms are risk factors for disease and which animals are likely to harbor pathogens that can cross over to humans.

"By identifying groups of organisms that are associated with disease and share common ancestors millions of years ago, researchers can target these organisms and their relatives for future studies, such as focusing on lineages of bacteria associated with inflammatory bowel disease to understand which traits determine the microbes' associations with or role in inflammation," Washburne said.

Not everyone works with much-studied species like bears and wolves, Washburne said. Some scientists encounter mysterious bacteria, fungi, amoeba and viruses that have never been examined in a laboratory, zoo or petri dish. Since the Earth could contain more than a trillion species of microorganisms, his team's mathematical tool will help them understand the microorganisms behind health or disease.

"The method we developed allows us to find and focus on those microbes to understand if these shared traits can be disrupted to prevent or cure disease," Washburne said.

Scientists who specialize in areas other than microorganisms can also use the model, Washburne said. In fact, Washburne wrote the model into free computer software that anyone can download from the internet.

Washburne, for one, is currently using the mathematical tool to study bats. He is involved in an international project to understand bats and bat-borne viruses in Australia, Bangladesh, Madagascar and Ghana. The $10 million project, a collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is led by Plowright. The infectious disease ecologist brought Washburne to MSU after he earned his doctorate at Princeton University and conducted postdoctoral research at Duke University.

"Alex's methods allow us to look for patterns in data that occur on any scale in the phylogenetic tree," Plowright said. "In previous studies, phylogeny (the evolutionary history of an organism) is included in models at one preset taxonomic level.

"Alex's methods allow us to discover if the important unit is the family or the order or the genus of species," Plowright said. "This flexibility has allowed us to discover new patterns in data sets that are, in hindsight, somewhat obvious, but we didn't previously have the tools to discover them."

Plowright added that, "Alex is one of a kind. When he finds a problem and discovered that there is no tool to solve it, he invents the tool from first principles."

In the meantime, lizards and elk are long behind him. Washburne continues to pursue a variety of professional interests in addition to bats and mathematical tools. With Jack the dog still at his side, he also works for a hedge fund company in New York, a microbiology company in California and a group of Swiss scientists studying glacier-fed streams.

Math is the common denominator, Washburne said.

"I'm interested in everything that evolves, from microbes and mammals to memes and markets," he said. "Understanding evolving systems is necessary to manage everything from microbiomes to financial markets."

- By Evelyn Boswell, for the MSU News Service -