Imaging Microbial Communities


From an early age, we learn that large organisms like animals develop from cells to tissues, tissues to organs, organ systems to organisms, and ultimately, organisms interact within ecosystems. This basic concept in biology is remarkable: with each transition along these levels of biological organization, the collective activity of the system gains "emergent properties" that cannot be achieved by the individual cells alone.


Although microbes like bacteria and archaea are traditionally thought of as unicellular organisms, similar levels of biological organization are central to the biology of the microbial world. Most microbes live within structured communities of cells  called biofilms. Within a biofilm, thousands or millions of cells, often including many different species, live within one viscous extracellular matrix. The matrix is produced by the cells themselves and is similar in principle to the matrix that holds animal cells together within a tissue. Virtually every surface on Earth is covered by biofilms. It's an ecosystem that, at the level of the microbial world, is something like a dense and diverse rainforest.


I am interested in the basic biology and fundamental principles of  biofilms and microbial communities. Specifically, I am working on new ways to image microbial structures, developmental processes and behaviors. I have worked with a variety of species of bacteria with multicellular lifestyles and complex behaviors, including Bacillus subtilis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Myxococcus xanthus and Actintobacteria.  And during my PhD work, I helped establish the  salt-loving (halophilic) archaeal species Haloferax volcanii as a model system for studying biofilm formation and related phenomena  within the domain Archaea, an understudied field relative to what we know about these important physiological processes in bacterial species.

Above animation: A developing Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilm

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