MCB professor Karine Gibbs and OEB professor Colleen Cavanaugh have teamed up to investigate what happens when a human-gut-dwelling microbe “goes rogue”. Their project is one of five to receive funding from the 2018 Star Family Challenge for Promising Scientific Research.
The Star Family Challenge, funded by a gift from James A. Star (‘83), enables Harvard scientists to pursue high-risk, high-reward interdisciplinary research programs.
“It is an honor to receive an award from the Star Family Challenge for Promising Scientific Research,” says Gibbs. “Colleen [Cavanaugh] and I are excited to launch into this investigation about the nature of an opportunistic pathogen lurking in the human gut. This project is a new venture based on the combined expertise of our two research groups, and I look forward to collaborate with Colleen.”
Gibbs and Cavanaugh will be combining the Gibbs Lab’s expertise in microbial behavior and the Cavanaugh Lab’s expertise in gene sequencing and constructing evolutionary trees to shed light on the behavior of a troublesome bacterial species called Proteus mirabilis. P. mirabilis is a widespread bacterium that lives in many human guts. In the intestine, P. mirabilis is usually mostly harmless, but it can cause severe urinary tract infections and fatal bacteremia, if it manages to spread into the kidney. Gibbs and Cavanaugh want to know why it becomes an aggressive pathogen in some individuals but not others.
“Understanding how any given avirulent bacterial population can transition into disease-causing agents is critical for combatting endemic opportunistic pathogens that are found throughout the body’s ecosystem,” they wrote in the project proposal. “We propose to start harnessing the power of ecology and evolution with molecular and microbiological approaches to tackle a fundamentally troubling reality: lurking, gut-residing bacteria that can go rogue, causing disease.”
Their project will include gathering many strains of P. mirabilis from fecal samples, sequencing the bacterial DNA, and mapping genetic relationships between strains. Their goal is to see whether some strains are especially likely to become pathogenic and if not, identify other factors that may be in play.
The funding from the Star Family Challenge will support the first 18 months of this research collaboration.
“I am thrilled to see Karine win the Star Family Award, with an exciting project that really showcases her creativity and ambition,” says MCB department chair Venkatesh Murthy. “It is also wonderful that Karine will work collaboratively with Colleen Cavanaugh from OEB, adding further intellectual links between the two departments.”