'Sleeping' bacterial cells survive antibiotic treatment

Researchers have developed a way to identify cells likely to survive antibiotics, even before treatment. Read more.

Novel diagnosis and treatment strategies for fungal infections

The Aspergillus-specific monoclonal antibody JF5 enables in vivo imaging of infection. Read more.

Microbes and Disease

Our research focus

The Microbes and Disease group focuses on understanding microbial systems, from the molecular and cellular level through to the population and community level, and defining the complex interactions between microbes and their hosts. Our research primarily focuses on bacterial and fungal pathogens of humans and animals, utilizing a range of methods including functional and comparative genomics, single-cell microfluidics, cellular and molecular biology, structural biology, population biology, mathematical modelling and molecular imaging. Working alongside industrial and clinical partners, the integration of these approaches enables us to address major global challenges associated with infectious diseases and the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance.

Research specialisms include:

  • emergence, evolution and epidemiology of infectious diseases;
  • evolution of virulence traits and antimicrobial resistance;
  • microbial physiology and its association with antimicrobial tolerance and virulence;
  • microbial signal transduction and stress adaptation;
  • microbial epitopes as candidates for vaccines and immunodiagnostics; and
  • molecular determinants of virulence and their role in shaping host-microbe interactions.

We have strong links with colleagues in the Fungal Biology and Plant Biology & Plant-Microbe Interactions research groups.

Recent research highlights

Exploring new approaches for antimicrobial drugs

Toxin–antitoxin (TA) systems are present in bacteria and play important roles in regulating bacterial growth, physiology, and pathogenicity. Nic Harmer and Rick Titball, working in collaboration with research teams at the University of Bristol, studied the mechanisms by which the toxin and antitoxin interact with each other and with target DNA. Their findings provide new insights into the mechanisms by which TA systems regulate their activity, and will allow new approaches to antimicrobial drugs.

Winter AJ et al. (2018). J Biol Chem. 293(50): 19429-19440.

Linkage between bacterial growth conditions and antimicrobial resistance

The nutritional environment of growing bacteria is constantly changing. In order to adapt to these changes, the population of bacteria can display cell-to-cell differences in properties such as growth rate and resistance to stress. Research led by Stefano Pagliara has found that changes in the levels of nutrients affect the type of proteins that Escherichia coli, a bacterium living in the human gut, uses to sustain growth, and that this also affects the degree of cell-to-cell differences in surviving antibiotic treatment.

Smith A et al. (2018). Front Microbiol. 9:1739.

Decision making mechanisms in the choice between acute and chronic infection

Bacteria use sensory networks to control their virulence. These networks detect threats and decide upon appropriate responses. A study led by Steve Porter investigated decision making within the GacS network of the opportunistic pathogen, Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The study uncovered three novel and distinct mechanisms that allow different sensors to communicate with one another during the choice between acute and chronic modes of infection. 

Francis VI et al. (2018). Nat. Commun. 9(1):2219.

Immune cells can recognize different virus strains

Research led by Harry White and colleagues at the universities of Exeter, Bristol and Birmingham has identified immune cells that should be good targets for vaccines that protect against multiple virus strains. Flu vaccines need to be updated every year because viruses like Flu and Dengue are constantly mutating, thus presenting a moving target difficult to immunize against. Current vaccines only provide protection against particular strains, but this study shows that certain immune cells can recognize virus variants and produce good antibodies against them.

Burton BR et al. (2018). Elife 7:e26832. | Read more here.

The health benefits of the oral microbiome

Mark van der Giezen and colleagues at the University of Exeter’s Medical School and Cardiff University have revealed that naturally-occurring bacteria in the mouth are helping to reduce blood pressure in older people. The nitrate found in leafy green vegetables is converted by the oral microbiome into bioaccessible nutrients that have health benefits. This work suggests that dietary intervention is a useful strategy for healthy ageing.

Vanhatalo A et al. (2018). Free Radic. Biol. Med. 124: 21-30.