York Science & Innovation Grand Tour May - Sept 2012

Sponsored by Aviva

53 Monk Bar

Did you know?

York scientists are developing novel ways to fight bacterial disease and to exploit these microscopic organisms to improve our environment.

Some bacteria cause disease but others can be used to our benefit. The image shows intestinal Escherichia coli bacteria, each just 1/1000th of a millimetre long and expressing either red or green fluorescent protein. At York, researchers are looking at novel ways to combat disease-causing bacteria but also to exploit bacteria for our benefit, such as cleaning explosives from contaminated soil and generating energy from plant waste.

Image 1 (Exhbit) credit: Andrew King, Marjan van der Woude and the Imaging and Cytometry Laboratory.

Image 2. File “A Methanogen”:
A methane-producing microbe (“methanogen”) isolated from the ocean, imaged at very high magnification, shown attached to a surface. Credit: Meg Stark, Ken Jarrell & James Chong.

Image 3. File Neisseria meningitidis, false color
A group of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria are shown as taken with a scanning electron microscope, and then false colored green. Credit: Mel Thompson, the Imaging Facility and James Moir.

Image 4. Legume root nodules
Shown are roots with nodules full of nitrogen-fixing bacteria (not visible here). These are the roots of common vetch, Vicia sativa, a wild flower that is sometimes grown to feed livestock. Credit: Peter Young.

Microbiology is just one example of the breadth of research carried out within the Department of Biology at the University of York. For more examples please see the links under ‘Other Exhibits from this Sponsor’‘.
A broad range or research on bacteria is carried out at the University of York. Some of this work focuses on combating disease causing bacteria, or pathogens, and other work aims to understand properties of bacteria and develop ways to utilize these for our and the environment’s benefit. Below ongoing research is summarized, and you can find out more by visiting the specific research group’s website. Biology academics CII academics

If you are a teacher or involved in an organization, club or society, and would like to have a presentation or activity related to these or other biological topics, we may be able to help. Visit the Biology or Centre of Immunology and Infection outreach webpage" to learn about past and present outreach activities. Contact details can be found there as well.

Bacterial Pathogens
The image of this display was generated by Andy King in Dr. Van der Woude’s group. This group aims to understand how communities of bacteria establish and maintain themselves, focusing on bacterial pathogens, including the food pathogen Salmonella sp. As illustrated by the image, following growth of bacteria using microscopy can help us understand the dynamics of bacterial interactions and biofilms, communities of cells that are difficult to eradicate. The group assesses how genetic differences contribute to the success of bacterial pathogens, including how they “hide” from our protective immune system. This knowledge may assist in drug and vaccine development.

In Dr.Moir’s group a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis that is a major cause of meningitis is studied. It can grow in the blood stream and kill within hours of infection, and it is not yet fully understood how it manages this so well. By looking for differences between this bacterial species and its close relatives that do not cause this disease, this may become apparent. They identify genetic differences, and then determine how these affect the bacterial properties. They hope that understanding the basic biology of these pathogens can reveal new approaches to prevention and treatment of this deadly disease.

Understanding how bacteria interact with their environment underlies the work in Dr. Gavin Thomas’ lab. Specifically, they are interested in determining which nutrients are used by bacteria as they grow in our bodies, and how these nutrients are imported in the bacterial cell. They compare and map the biochemical pathways for nutrient synthesis to the genetic information of bacteria, and study in detail how proteins can allow only specific sugars to enter the cell.

Researchers in Dr. Barilla’s group are looking for novel targets to combat antibiotic resistance in bacteria by studying the molecular biology of genetic elements (plasmids) that can facilitate spread of resistance traits between different bacterial species.

Beneficial bacteria
Many bacteria are beneficial to us, but also to plants. For example, the rhizobia are associated with legume plants such as peas, beans and clover. These bacteria are found inside nodules on the roots of these plants, where they convert nitrogen from the air into fertiliser that the plant can use. This free and natural plant food is better for the environment than nitrogen fertiliser out of a bag, and benefits farmers and gardeners alike. Different legume plants need different rhizobia, and York researchers (Prof. Young’s group) are investigating the great diversity of these bacteria and their interactions with wild and cultivated plants.

Part of Prof. Bruce’s lab is examining how a bacterium (Rhodococcus rhodochrous (11Y) can degrade the toxic explosive RDX. The aim is use this knowledge to device ways to clean up contaminated soils or design and develop biosensors to test for the presence of explosive material. Their work suggests that expressing specific bacterial proteins in landscape plants may provide a suitable remediation strategy for explosive contaminated sites.

Compost heaps, land fill sites and the insides of cows are all places where microbes can decompose plant waste to make methane (the main flammable component of natural gas). One focus of Dr. James Chong’s group (in collaboration with others in Biology) is to understand the bacterial communities that do this, and how these processes can be enhanced as a green energy source. The microbes responsible for producing methane are called methanogens. These cells are archaea, a domain of life that shares many general traits with bacteria.

The research activities described above are made possibly with financial support from a wide range of sources, including but not limited to charities like the Wellcome Trust, and governmental support through Research Councils UK, as well as international funding from the European Union and foreign governments. Details about the funding for individual projects can be found by following the links to the research groups’ websites.

Reproduction in any form of any of the images on this website is strictly prohibited.

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