Modern cell biology rests upon the power of studying pure cultures, often in shaking flasks. However, in nature cell groups are complex systems that frequently contain genetically-distinct populations. This genetic diversity ranges from point mutations that separate normal and cancerous tissue, through different strains of malaria in a host, to bacterial biofilms that contain a myriad of species. My research focuses on how genetic variability affects and explains the biology of cell groups, using microbes as a model system. The presence of different genotypes in a cell group leads to the potential for strong interactions. It is not sufficient, therefore, to study single genotypes alone; we need a systems biology of cell groups. Towards this aim, we combine the theories of social evolution and collective behaviour with the empirical study of microbes in two main approaches. The first focuses on the effects of mutation-driven diversity on a key bacterial trait - polymer secretion - that is central to bacterial life. The second approach focuses on the genetic diversity that arises when strains and species mix together. Here, we are developing a set of assays to investigate the effects of strain and species mixing centred upon Pseudomonas aeruginosa; a pathogenic bacterium that forms biofilms in the cystic fibrosis lung. We combine biofilm assays with transcriptomics to characterize the mechanisms that allow P. aeruginosa to invade environments containing benign species that might otherwise afford protection to a host. By taking a stepwise strategy that systematically adds back components of the physical and social environment, we aim to break down the daunting complexity of natural microbe communities. The ultimate goal is to build a predictive framework that goes from the mechanisms of social interaction among cells up to the emergent properties of natural communities.
Field of science
- /natural sciences/biological sciences/microbiology/bacteriology
- /natural sciences/biological sciences/cell biology
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