Irish scientist leads innovative work on bacteria

An Irish scientist is leading a €4.6.m project that could revolutionise the understanding and treatment of bacteria and disease.

The work, creating tools that can speed up research into a variety of diseases, is led by Chris Johnston, from Cork.

He is also the youngest recipient of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Transformative Research Award, one of the most prestigious funding programmes in the United States.

It singles out projects that are high-risk, as they require little preliminary data at application stage, but which have the potential for groundbreaking results.

The 30-year-old, from Carrigaline, Co Cork, earned his applied biosciences degree, and his PhD, from Cork Institute of Technology.

His work there concentrated on the microbiome, which describes the non-human cells that outnumber human cells in our bodies by about ten-to-one. They comprise thousands of types of bacteria, along with fungi, viruses, and other organisms.

Chris moved to Boston in 2013, with his then-girlfriend, Susan Bullman, a fellow microbiology PhD from CIT, but the couple came home to get married last August.

The move gave Chris an opportunity to shift from his early research focus on microbiology to immunology and vaccines, giving him an improved understanding of the effects of bacteria on humans.

He established a lab, last year, at the Forsyth Institute in Boston, whose biomedical research is particularly recognised for its work on oral health.

The new project was approved, last month, for funding by the NIH. “We’re developing the basic tools, which very specialised researchers can use, and which will, hopefully, speed up their work enormously,” said Chris, who is programme director and principal investigator.

“The problem is that the vast majority of bacteria that can be grown in a lab remain genetically intractable. They are beyond the power of genetics for elucidating function, or for engineering for human use,” he says.

His collaborators at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on new equipment to break through the physical barriers that make genetic engineering in bacteria more difficult.

This will enable Chris and his team to focus on what can then be done to break down the bacteria and improve understanding of them.

The NIH award recognises that, rather than have individual researchers working on individual bacteria to answer their own research questions, it makes more sense to have one group become experts in genetic-engineering methods.

“We’re going to create a roadmap that means other researchers don’t have to spend all their time on that side of things. We expect researchers around the world will reach out to us , meaning they can get to their particular goals faster,” he said.

The team of microbiologists, computational biologists, and doctors at Forsyth Institute, and their collaborators at MIT, have five years to develop their work.

Susan Bullman is also working on groundbreaking research, going beyond significant past work on causes of gastroenteritis.

The Cork-born scientist’s post-doctoral research, at the Dana Barber Cancer Institute, in Boston, could help to develop new cancer treatments, as she is focusing on micro-organisms that may contribute to the development of the disease.


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