Simple experiment persists, leading to collaborative research at MSU

  • Apr 27, 2016
  • Faculty & Staff, Research, Students, Microbiology

Neal Hammer (left), MMG assistant professor, and Laura Hesse

Neal Hammer (left), MMG assistant professor, and Laura Hesse, MMG junior and College of Natural Science Dean's Research Scholar, discuss the growth phenotypes observed when different strains of S. aureus are co-cultured.

What started as a simple experiment led to the establishment of a new research program at Vanderbilt School of Medicine in 2014 and is now the main focus of Neal Hammer’s work at Michigan State University.

The simple experiment entailed mixing together two different mutants of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria to see if they were able to complement each other’s growth defects. Researchers found that was, indeed, the case.

“We discovered that not only can staph share metabolites with other S. aureus, but it can share metabolites with many different bacteria,” said Hammer, who joined the MSU College of natural Scienc's Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (MMG) in August 2015 as an assistant professor. “Those interactions are something that we’re trying to find and figure out.”

The overarching theme of Hammer’s lab is threefold: understanding how staph modulates its aerobic respiration, defining the metabolic pathways that support respiration-arrested small colony variants (SCVs) and determining the biophysical properties of the enzymes that allow these SCVs to function in distinct environments.

“If we can figure out the pathways that support respiration-arrested growth, we can potentially design small molecule inhibitors of those pathways and eliminate the ability of staph to develop these SCVs,” Hammer explained. “And if we can figure out ways to inhibit staph’s ability to aerobically respire, it sets up this ‘dual therapy’ where we combine potential therapeutics and hopefully eliminate the ability of bacteria to grow.”

He noted that SCVs are inherently more resistant to certain classes of antibiotics and are associated with persistent infection.

“Understanding the mechanisms that underlie their physiology could lead to ways to decrease their resistance and persistence,” Hammer said. “In general, we’re talking about persistent Staph aureus infections—such as those found in people who have cystic fibrosis and people who have previous bone infections or bone trauma.”

What he values most about MSU is the diversity in terms of what the faculty study within microbiology.

“Here at MSU there are really good folks who do microbial physiology and metabolism, fantastic people who do pathogenesis, and a great group that does ecology,” Hammer said. “Having a wide breadth of experts in these different fields is going to support my research program because if I have a question that centers on one of those areas I can talk to a leading expert in that field. I’ve already had a couple of fruitful discussions with not only the faculty who study microbial metabolism in this department, but those in the biochemistry department who also study metabolism.”

He said he looks forward to much more collaborative research between the various campus groups.

“You never know where science is going to take you, so the potential of collaborating with researchers in ecology, or scientists who are really good at understanding metabolism and metabolic pathways is really exciting,” Hammer said.

“It’s a great time to be in the MMG department,” he added. “There is a lot of active recruitment taking place. The new chair—Dr. DiRita—brings a very enthusiastic approach to science. And it’s contagious.”

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