By Elisabeth Wall
Ece Karatan, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology at Appalachian State University, has been awarded her second National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant for her research in cholera and microbial biofilms.
The three-year funding will pay student salaries, allow her team to travel to national and regional conferences and fund the expensive supplies her research requires. The funds will also allow her to teach one less class per year, leaving more time for research and mentoring.
Asked how she qualified for the second round of funding, Karatan explained: “The NIH likes to see that you’ve trained lots of students” (18 graduate students over her 11 years at Appalachian, eight over the course of her first three years of funding); “that you are publishing (I managed to produce three good papers over the first funding period.); that the research is progressing, and that there is responsible fiscal oversight.”
Karatan’s research focuses on how Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera, forms biofilms. For a microscopic visual of biofilm, think slime or, in Karatan’s words, “Jell-o® with grapes in it – the Jell-o being the sticky material that surrounds the cells in the biofilm and the grapes, the cells.” Microorganisms in biofilms are protected from environmental stressors, so living in biofilms is advantageous for bacteria.
Karatan’s research indicates one of the proteins that regulates V. cholerae biofilm responds to external cues. In turn, that protein talks to a second protein that then cues the bacterium to make more biofilms. If she can interrupt or break the cycle, it’s possible she can prevent Vibrio cholerae from setting up in the intestines. (Read more about Karatan’s research here.)
The chances of eliminating cholera, Karatan admitted, is on par with winning the lottery. “It’s really ultimately a sanitation issue,” she said. The money shot – what Karatan labels, albeit hesitantly, a “new paradigm” – is that it so happens that many different bacteria have genes that encode two proteins that look just like the ones she is studying, and no one has investigated any of them. “We can look at these bacterial genomes and predict bacterial signaling in all types of hosts and locations,” she said, “ including arctic ice. We have a model system we know a lot about that can be applied in a host of other scenarios.”
(Pronunciation guide for Ece: eh Jay)