Microbiologist Dr Steve Diggle, a Royal Society University Research Fellow at The University of Nottingham, has been awarded a three-year £300,000 Young Investigator grant from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP).
The HFSP supports international scientific collaborations and is funded by the governments of the G7 nations. The Young Investigator grant is awarded to scientists who are within five years of obtaining their first independent position.
Dr Diggle and his colleagues will use the funding to study how cells of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa self-assemble into three-dimensional spatially organised structures known as biofilms — and how these different structures impact cooperation within the assembly.
Understanding how cells assemble in this way is a major challenge in cell and development biology and biological physics.
Dr Diggle said: “Recent publications have drawn analogies between phenomena in multi-cellular higher-eukaryotic systems and phenomena in multi-cellular bacterial systems. This suggests that targeted studies of bacterial systems could provide insights that are more generally applicable than to bacterial systems alone.
“Our model organism is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an opportunistic human pathogen which forms sticky antibiotic-resistant biofilms. Such 3D structures are formed because cells cooperate with each other using a signalling system known as quorum sensing.
“In this study we propose a programme of complementary experiments and computer simulations to understand the factors controlling cooperation and signalling between cells and the development of 3D structure, using bacterial biofilms as our model 3D cell assemblies.”
In order to be eligible for funding from the HFSP, research must be a collaboration between scientists from different parts of the world, as well as being multi-disciplinary.
The University of Nottingham’s team will collaborate with skilled researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh, Copenhagen, and Austin in Texas.
Dr Diggle said: “I am very excited about the collaborative aspect of the work. Collaborations between different disciplines can lead to fruitful long term associations which allow you to approach a problem with a novel multidisciplinary approach. This grant is a great example of this, a multidisciplinary project which brings together different expertise to address a big problem: explaining how cells cooperate to form functional 3D structures.
“The team brings together a physicist, a modeler and microbiologists. I will benefit greatly from this because I will be exposed to new techniques and different approaches to a problem.”
It is not only the researchers from the partner universities who bring extensive expertise to the collaboration. Dr Diggle and colleagues at The University of Nottingham also have their own specialties.
Dr Diggle began his PhD in Microbiology at The University of Nottingham in 1997 before undertaking Post Doctoral research. In 2006 Dr Diggle received a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to start his own research team.
Dr Diggle said: “We have considerable expertise working with Pseudomonas aeruginosa. For many years we have studied the molecular systems that allow this bug to communicate between cells using signals in a process known as quorum sensing. More recently we have been focusing on how these systems evolve.
“We know a lot about how they work but less is known about why they exist. Such questions are very important in our HFSP grant."
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