A bacterial community

Bid to understand how bacterial defences affect the spread of 'mobile genetic elements'

A major new project will investigate how bacterial defences influence the spread of segments of DNA called mobile genetic elements (MGEs) between bacteria.

MGEs can move from one bacterium to another and can change key traits of bacteria, including antibiotic resistance and virulence (the severity of illness they can cause).

There are various forms of MGEs, including phages (viruses that infect bacteria) and plasmids (circular DNA molecules).

Dr Stineke Van Houte, from the University of Exeter, has been awarded a €1.5 million European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant for the project, with a further €1 million for a Fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) machine.

The project is called MUSIC (MGE Uptake and Spread in Microbial Communities).

"This MUSIC project aims to understand how bacterial immune systems keep MGEs out," said Dr Van Houte, of the Environment and Sustainability Institute on Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

"It will investigate the relative importance of the different individual bacterial defences, using a combination of bacterial genome sequence analyses and laboratory experiments.

"The goal is to develop a comprehensive picture of which bacterial defences are particularly important in blocking MGE infections, and this information will allow us to predict whether a bacterium can or can’t become infected with an MGE, based solely on the defence repertoire found in that bacterium’s genome.

"From this, we will use machine learning approaches in order to build towards understanding how MGEs spread through communities of multiple bacterial species, based on the knowledge of what defences exist in that community."

Dr Van Houte said the project's "blue sky" approach was not specifically focussed on human health – but on understanding key processes of bacterial evolution.

However, this understanding could be vital in the emerging antibiotic resistance crisis.

The award to Dr Van Houte is one of 397 ERC Starting Grants given early-career researchers, with €619 million awarded in total.

The grants are intended to help "ambitious younger researchers launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their best ideas".

ERC president Professor Maria Leptin said: "Letting young talent thrive in Europe and go after their most innovative ideas – this is the best investment in our future, not least with the ever-growing competition globally.

"We must trust the young and their insights into what areas will be important tomorrow.

"So, I am thrilled to see these new ERC Starting Grant winners ready to cut new ground and set up their own teams."

Date: 13 January 2022

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