Erin Goley of biological chemistry explains how bacterial science is undergoing a renaissance:
The drug industry has been criticized for not investing enough in developing new antibiotics. What are your thoughts?
GOLEY: I'm no expert on this topic, but from what I hear and read, the major problem is that drug companies aren't particularly interested in antibiotic development because antibiotics are prescribed only for a short period of time. The return on their investment is much higher in producing drugs that a patient is likely to take indefinitely, such as those that treat high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I don't know of any labs that do basic bacterial cell biology research that have drug company funding, but that may just be my own ignorance.
There is a sense in the bacterial cell biology community that, in addition to figuring out how bugs work at the cellular and molecular level in the interest of basic science, we can be the drivers of new antibiotic development.
What do you most enjoy about this area of research?
GOLEY: The unknowns! It's amazing to think that researchers have been looking at bacterial cells since Van Leeuwenhoek first saw them in the 1670s, yet there are so many fundamental questions left unanswered as to how they grow, divide, go through developmental or signaling events, or coordinate multi-cellular processes (like biofilm formation). It's an exciting time to be a bacterial cell biologist.
Is technology driving this latest chapter in bacterial science? It’s probably safe to assume that today’s microscopes exceed Van Leeuwenhoek’s by degrees of magnitude.
GOLEY: Advances in microscopy (notably cryoelectron tomography and super-resolution imaging methods like those being used by people like Jie Xiao in biophysics here at Johns Hopkins) are making it possible to see things we've never seen in these tiny cells before. Particularly with respect to the bacterial cytoskeleton, there is so much we don't know. Coming from a eukaryotic cytoskeleton background where most major phenomena and molecular players have probably been identified, it is exciting to be in the thick of things as the basic premises of cytoskeletal function are worked out in bacteria.
What’s challenging about what you do?
GOLEY: Bacterial cells are small! That's why it took so long to realize they have sub-cellular organization. Imaging the cytoskeleton has been a challenge in these organisms, but we can now easily get an image of where proteins are localized in the cell and a general picture of the structures they form, though not yet at the resolution we'd like (for example, we cannot see individual FtsZ filaments in living, growing, dividing cells).
The challenge is in developing imaging technologies (again, like super-resolution and cryo-electron microscopy techniques) that will let us get an accurate picture of cytoskeletal structures in living cells.
Bacterial science seems to have had its heyday in the last century. Is the study of bacteria as popular now as it was in the past?
GOLEY: I'd guess there are fewer bacteriologists now than there were 50 years ago. Most universities had a bacteriology, or at least microbiology, department 50 or 60 years ago. Many of those turned into (or merged with) molecular biology or molecular genetics departments during the advent of recombinant DNA technologies (which originated in studies in bacteria and viruses) in the 1970s and 1980s. Here at Johns Hopkins, for example, the Department of Microbiology became the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the 1980s.
However, with the renaissance in bacterial cell biology and emerging interest in the microbiome in the last couple of decades, I'd bet there has been a rise in the number of scientists studying bacteria since the 1990s. I worked on eukaryotes during my Ph.D. studies, but was drawn to prokaryotes during my postdoc because of the recent exciting discoveries around the bacterial cytoskeleton. Others I've met since joining the field followed a similar path. So I think we're growing in numbers again.