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Communicating science: Elizabeth Shank works to identify new antibiotics by getting bacteria ‘talking’

More than 70 percent of the antibiotics used as clinical therapeutics today are derived from compounds made by soil bacteria. Elizabeth Shank, PhD, associate professor of systems biology, studies soil bacteria and is focused on potentially developing new antibiotics.

“In the soil, bacteria are surrounded by hundreds of other microbial species, and they talk to these other bacteria using chemical cues. We can think of these chemical cues like different words of the chemical language the bacteria use to interact,” Dr. Shank said. “In my lab we intentionally grow different species of bacteria together to see if we can stimulate these conversations and get these bacteria to make new compounds that they only express when they're interacting, or talking, with each other.”

Shank explained that the lab is trying to figure out if they can identify any rules or guiding principles that will help them predict what kinds of bacterial interactions are most likely to stimulate these new chemical conversations.

The Shank lab is also exploring the idea that if a pathogen’s phenotype, or, behavior, can be changed, we might not even need to use antibiotics at all. She said one dangerous behavior that pathogens adopt is the formation of a biofilm. Examples of biofilm are the plaque on your teeth and the slimy build-up in the shower. It's a community of cells living together in close proximity, all stuck together in a sticky matrix that holds the cells to each other and attaches them to surfaces. When pathogenic bacteria form biofilms in places that they shouldn't, like on medical catheters or on some other parts of our bodies, they can cause serious health problems.

“We want to exploit these chemical signals that bacteria are already using to communicate with each other so that we can manipulate their behavior, prevent disease and reduce antibiotic use. If we can identify these chemical signals that eliminate biofilms or that prevent other harmful pathogenic phenotypes associated with different diseases, we could use these compounds as drugs to improve human health,” Shank said.

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