Women in Science: What bacterial vacuum cleaners do for you

petri dish 300x232 Women in Science: What bacterial vacuum cleaners do for you

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Laura Piddock is Professor of Microbiology, Deputy Director of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection, BSAC Chair in Public Engagement, Director Antibiotic Action. Laura took part in Soapbox Science 2013, on 5th July where she stood on a soapbox on London’s Southbank and spoke to the public about her work, and to help promote the role of women in science.

Soapbox Science 2013 has now been and gone; what an experience!  I joined Soapbox Science because I was keen to dispel the perpetuating myth of academics living in ivory towers and that scientists all look like Albert Einstein! For me, Soapbox Science 2013 was about challenging stereotypes about women and those of scientists, as well as being a fantastic platform to tell everyone about the research that is carried out in my team on antibiotic resistance, and how we can use such information to help discover new treatments.

My team works on a bacterial ‘vacuum cleaner’ which is called an efflux pump. This pump transports many antibiotics out of the bacterial cell so that they do not get to high enough concentrations to kill the bacterium. My team investigates the switches that turn this vacuum cleaner on and off as a possible way of discovering new ways to prevent efflux, and so get high toxic concentrations of the drug inside the bacterial cell.

Bacteria do not recognise whether they are in a human being, an animal or in the environment, so exposure to antibiotics anywhere will select those that overproduce the vacuum cleaner and pump even more antibiotic out of the cell. This renders these bacteria multidrug resistant and has caused clinical failure for some infections in some patients.

My team has also shown that for bacteria such as salmonella, that if the efflux pump ‘vacuum cleaner’ is prevented from working or being produced, that the bacterium is no longer able to cause a an infection. Therefore, this makes any aspect of this system highly attractive as a target to develop new treatments.

Work done in my team has also shown that these ‘bacterial vacuum cleaners’ can also export the antimicrobial products sold in washing-up liquids and soaps. When bacteria become resistant to these, they also become resistant to antibiotics. This is why research on the way in which bacteria become resistant, is so important and underpins drug discovery programmes,  for instance, we can tell whether new drugs will be affected by this type of resistance or not.

My team also researches the way antibiotic resistance genes are shared between bacteria – ‘bacterial sex’. By sequencing the DNA of these transmissible elements that are shared by bacteria, and understanding transfer, ways to prevent transmission can be found, so reducing the numbers of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

All-in-all, I found preparing for SoapBox Science challenging, thinking up the types of props so that I could share the details of the science that my team carry out without out making it incomprehensible. I hope that by linking with some everyday objects, such as models bacterial cell made out of lemonade bottles with Lego to illustrate the vacuum cleaner efflux pump, that my audience will remember the key facts about antibiotic resistance and the science behind it. Who knows, maybe the younger members of the audience will be inspired to carry out research themselves one day on this important area.

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