Microbiology Lab Awarded Nearly $500,000 to Study Plant Pathogens

By Colby Gallagher

Published on November 11, 2019

The act of brushing your teeth is a way to get rid of biofilms, a collection of microorganisms that grow on the tooth’s surface containing bacteria that lead to tooth decay. Teeth aren’t the only surface where potentially harmful biofilms grow, and Jason Heindl PhD, assistant professor of biology, runs a lab looking at the cell biology of bacteria and how organisms form biofilms.

“We’re interested in really basic mechanisms that all sorts of bacteria use for surviving in the environment,” said Dr. Heindl.

Dr. Heindl says what they find from the biology of the organisms can be used for things such as drug discovery or antibiotic mechanisms.

What makes the lab even more intriguing is that the pathogen used is derived from plants.

“The pathways used by this particular plant pathogen that we study are conserved in these human pathogens,” he said. “So things that we learn in our plant pathogen we can translate to human pathogens down the road.”

Dr. Heindl’s interest in biofilms began after he served in the Peace Corps in Ghana teaching chemistry to high school students.

“During that time, there are a lot of communicable diseases, infectious diseases, that one acquires and quickly gets rid of if one has a healthy immune system,” said Dr. Heindl. “It’s quite an experience that makes one realize, there’s a lot of easily treatable or potentially treatable diseases out there. That brought me into thinking about what I wanted to do with my graduate career.”

Once he came back to the United States, Dr. Heindl knew to search for programs that studied human pathogens, landing on one that studied Shigella flexneri, a bacterium that causes shigellosis or bacterial dysentery. From there, Dr. Heindl’s research shifted to focus on looking at the cell biology of a single bacterium.

“For my postdoctoral work, I transferred those ideas of how does a single bacterium do what it does...how does it put proteins in one place? How does it regulate its genes in response to the environment,” he said. “I transferred my thoughts from Shigella to an organism called Agrobacterium and that’s the plant pathogen that we study now.”

The research is funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences who awarded Dr. Heindl’s lab nearly half a million dollars to look at genetic pathways that control infection processes in bacteria for three years. The work is also currently funded under a one-year grant for $100,000 from the W.W. Smith Charitable Trust.

Undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral trainees work under Dr. Heindl helping to perform the research. One of those students is Julia Perkowski MB’20, whose childhood pet served as the catalyst for her future in microbiology.Dr. Jason Heindl's lab

“I had fish and I was really involved in setting up the nitrogen cycle, I got a lot of testing kits to test the chemistry of the aquarium and make sure everything was fine, and then my fish got sick,” said Perkowski. “I was doing a lot of research online and trying to figure out what they could be sick with, and at some point, I was just so frustrated I was like ‘I wish I could swab them and look under a microscope.’ That sort of sparked my interest.” 

The lab studying agrobacterium is Perkowski’s first experience doing lab research outside of the classroom and she’s found it useful as a future scientist.

“I feel like the independence has been very beneficial and I’ve been able to develop my critical thinking,” she said. “Whenever I run into a problem, with the knowledge I’ve learned from both my lab courses as well as here, I’ve been able to think of better solutions.”

Perkowski is one of a handful of students working in the lab helping to find answers to the questions Dr. Heindl has about bacterium. 

In order to find those answers, Dr. Heindl recruits students from his courses who are involved in basic biology to further their education in the lab.

It wasn’t until her third year on campus that Perkowski got involved in research and it solidified what she wants to do in the future. She encourages others to get involved early, despite their career aspirations.

“Find a lab. It’s very valuable research, it’s a very valuable experience,” she said. “Even if you don’t think you’re going to pursue research later on in your life, it’s still a lot of valuable experiences and skills. It teaches you to think in a different way.”

Categories: News, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Biological Sciences, Microbiology, Students, Faculty, Research, Biology