Over the next few years, George O'Toole, a Geisel professor of microbiology and immunology, will be part of an international team of researchers that takes a new approach to a longstanding problem in biology: how bacteria form colonies called biofilms. The collaboration is the result of a $1.6-million grant awarded to O'Toole and three other researchers—one each from UCLA, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cologne—by the Human Frontier Science Program, an organization based in France.
Biofilms can be found just about everywhere, and in the wrong setting they can pose significant medical challenges. Bacteria in biofilms are often much more difficult to kill with antibiotics than are free-swimming bacteria, making them very difficult to eradicate when they form on medical devices or in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis, for example.
O'Toole has spent years studying biofilms, with a particular focus on biofilm formation. "We've used a number of different tools, mostly bacterial genetics and biochemistry, to try to understand at a macroscopic level what's happening," he says. That work has led to a better understanding of how, at a group level, bacteria form biofilms.
The new collaboration—which includes experts in biophysics, microscopy, and fluid dynamics—will lead to a better understanding of the mechanics of biofilm formation among individual bacteria cells, including how the components of a single cell attach to a surface when joining a biofilm. The researchers will also examine how manipulating the genetics of bacteria affects the ability of individual bacteria cells to join biofilms. "It's bringing to bear a number of different disciplines to tackle a question that has been out there in the field for a while but that no one has been able to really understand at a detailed, mechanistic level," O'Toole says.
O'Toole is excited to be part of this diverse team of researchers. "Science is really moving in the direction of trans-disciplinary work, where you're stretching yourself in new directions and each person brings a discrete expertise to the table," he says. "One good way for making new breakthroughs in a field is by bringing in people with novel perspectives."
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