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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Academics & Research

Professor earns nearly $1M to study bacteria


Timothy Cooper, associate professor in biology, was honored with $967,431in grants from the National Science Foundation.

Associate professor in biology Timothy Cooper was honored with $967,431 in grants from the National Science Foundation.  |  Courtesy of Chris Watts

Associate professor Timothy Cooper and his team of biologists were granted a five-year, $967,431 National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study the causes and consequences of evolvability in bacteria.

The team wants to develop the ability to predict evolutionary winners and losers from the many variants that arise in any bacterial population and is trying to isolate a bacterial pathogen from a patient to predict the likelihood that it will become resistant to a particular antibiotic.

“Scientists now see that populations are evolving before our eyes; we can observe that populations differ in the rate and form of that evolution,” said George Gilchrist, NSF program manager. “Cooper is using experimentally evolved populations of bacteria to examine both the causes of variation in evolvability and its consequences for those organisms.”

Selection for the NSF CAREER award is based on two important criteria: innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology that is relevant to the mission of the sponsoring organization or agency and community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education or community outreach.

These awards foster innovative developments in science and technology, increase awareness of careers in science and engineering, give recognition to the scientific missions of the participating agencies, enhance connections between fundamental research and national goals and highlight the importance of science and technology for the nation’s future.

From left, Cooper, Ph.D. student Rachel Staples and postdoctoral fellow Andrea Wünsche record the fluorescence of thousands of individual cells using a flow cytometer. This data is used to calculate the relative fitness of competing bacterial strains.  |  Photo Courtesy of Chris Watts

From left, Cooper, doctoral candidate Rachel Staples and post-doctoral fellow Andrea Wünsche record the fluorescence of thousands of individual cells using a flow cytometer. This data is used to calculate the relative fitness of competing bacterial strains. | Photo courtesy of Chris Watts

“We aim to develop an understanding of the genetic and physiological basis of evolvability in experimental populations of bacteria,” Cooper said. “We anticipate that this understanding will be relevant to fields such as vaccine and antibiotic design, where evolvability is something to be countered, and biotechnology, where evolvability will often be something to be exploited.”

Using a combination of microbiology and molecular biology to address a basic evolutionary question, the team has already found that the factor that limits how quickly the bacteria can increase in fitness seems to be a form of antagonistic interaction that occurs between the genetic changes that, by themselves, increase fitness. The product of these genetic changes is usually less than the sum of their parts.

“We would like to extend our work to look for differences in the ability of natural isolates of bacteria to adapt to new environmental challenges,” Cooper said.

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