Faculty Highlight: Matt Anderson – exploring genetic diversity and Indigenous relationships

The Center for Genomic Science Innovation welcomes Dr. Matt Anderson, who recently joined CGSI and the Department of Medical Genetics as an Associate Professor. Anderson and his lab are broadly interested in how genetic diversity contributes to variation in and among organisms, with a focus on Candida albicans and the eukaryotic microbiome.

Since its inception, the lab has supported Indigenous trainees in the lab or worked with Indigenous communities, particularly the Lakota people on the Cheyenne River reservation, based on his own Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians heritage. Anderson’s interest in C. albicans stems from the health impacts caused by the yeast to historically vulnerable populations, motivating him to help these communities with his research.

Anderson is no stranger to UW-Madison, having completed his Bachelor’s degree here in 2002 after a stint in the Marine Corps. “Working under Dr. Albert Ellingboe, who was faculty in Plant Pathology and Genetics, provided me those first crucial impressions of what research looked like and allowed you to do,” explains Anderson. He then completed a Ph.D. in Genetics at Stanford University and postdoctoral work with Dr. Judith Berman at the University of Minnesota and Dr. Richard Bennett at Brown University. Anderson established his own lab at Ohio State in 2016 before moving back to UW-Madison in August.

As he sets up his lab, we asked Anderson a few questions on his trajectory, research, and involvement with Indigenous communities:


Dr. Matt Anderson

What are the main goals of your research? 

The Anderson lab is broadly interested in how genetic diversity contributes to variation in and among organisms. Much of the genetic and genomic work uses the human commensal yeast and opportunistic pathogen Candida albicans due to its compact genome, ease of manipulation in the laboratory, and contributions to human health.

One area of research investigates how gene family expansions contribute to functional diversification among its paralogous members. Many of the gene families that contribute to organismal success often undergo repeated rounds of duplication to create expanded gene families with many members. We are studying a 14-member paralogous family of MED2 homologs in C. albicans that encode subunits of the transcriptional Mediator complex, which is found across eukaryotes. We hope to better understand how function is either partitioned and/or shared by paralogs.

The second topic is studying genotype-phenotype relationships using natural diversity among C. albicans clinical isolates. Using quantitative genetics, we are working to unveil how genetic variation contributes to the ability to colonize and/or damage the host. This has required us to develop tools for C. albicans genetics as it lacks a sexual cycle and instead can undergo a parasexual cycle of nuclear fusion and disordered chromosome loss. Our work here has uncovered really exciting results on the potential for parasex to produce genetic diversity and the contributions of aneuploidy to commensalism and disease caused by C. albicans. 

The third area expands beyond our C. albicans work to define the microbial eukaryotes in microbiome communities more globally. Significant effort has defined the bacterial constituents of host-associated and environmental microbiomes. Yet, eukaryotes in these communities are comparatively unexplored and their identification relies on the use of amplicon-based sequencing approaches. We developed a metagenomics approach that avoids the biases associated with amplicon-based sequencing and allows for de novo genome assemblies and identification of new taxonomical groups. This work is being applied to areas of interest by our Lakota community partners, specifically microbiome associations with rheumatoid arthritis and environmental microbiome changes linked to land use by humans.

Can you provide an overview of your involvement with Indigenous genomics, related to research, education, and outreach?

We have been engaging Indigenous communities in genetics and genomics around training and our more applied research areas since starting as a lab. The most important factor in this work has been waiting to be asked to enter a space. We do not actively seek out Tribal Nations for work we have already planned, but instead make ourselves available to Tribes as partners for any questions they want to pursue. This means that our microbiome work with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe was dictated to us by community members and organizations. We were fortunate to have a Cheyenne River tribal member work as part of our lab on this project for 3 years before our move to Madison.

Training of Indigenous students is a critical part of our lab’s purpose as well. The lab works to offer positions to Indigenous students interested in biomedical research. At the same time, I’ve been involved with international consortia to promote genetic training for Indigenous people through the Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING, which Anderson co-directs), and to promote informatics training through IndigiData, a program founded with Dr. Krystal Tsosie at Arizona State University.

I have also participated in many outreach opportunities through the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), and other local organizations. One thing I’ve been really proud to assist with is the ongoing support for the Native BioData Consortium, the only Indigenous-owned and operated biobank and research center in the Western Hemisphere.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?  

The research environment and the acknowledgment of Indigenous people as part of the university and the state’s community attracted me to UW. Research from Madison has led multiple fields for decades. That spirit of being a significant driver of research draws people to Madison to pursue big questions. That environment is what I want myself and my trainees to be surrounded by. The presence of a large fungal research community will simultaneously support folks in my lab to find collaborative opportunities and learn from others. At the same time, UW includes a large number of Indigenous people in its faculty. Seeing efforts taken by UW to address areas of concern by Tribes within the state and include Indigenous investigators as a critical piece of that research is something I wanted to be able to contribute to.


Anderson’s lab is located in CGSI on the fourth floor of the Genetics-Biotechnology Center.