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Danielle Garsin, Ph.D.
assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics,
Worms could unearth secrets of host-pathogen interaction
Infectious bacteria are becoming smarter than the drugs used to kill them. This rise in antibiotic-resistant infections represents a growing public health problem whereby diseases are becoming untreatable with the antibiotics once used to cure them.
Research by Danielle Garsin, Ph.D., focuses on strategies to keep infectious diseases under control. Specifically, she studies host-pathogen interactions to understand the factors that allow a bacterial pathogen to cause disease and those that are important for host defense.
Her experiments involve a tiny worm called Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) and a human bacterial pathogen called Enterococcus faecalis (E. faecalis).
“When feeding on E. faecalis, this little worm becomes sick and dies,” Garsin said. “Both the bug and the worm can be genetically manipulated, and this allows us to identify the factors involved in the hostpathogen interaction. Specifically, we are looking for the genes that make E. faecalis able to cause disease and the genes in the worm that contribute to an effective defense against infection. The hope is that what we learn in this model system will give us ideas and strategies that can be applied to clinical infectious disease.”
Garsin’s laboratory has discovered that the worm’s intestinal cells release toxic molecules called reactive oxygen species in response to infection, and her ongoing research looks to connect this finding to humans.
“There is evidence that the cells that line our intestine and other mucosal surfaces might do the same thing, but how this works and the importance in defense against infection is not well understood,” she said. “Our ongoing studies are focused on understanding this process.”
Garsin also has identified genes that allow E. faecalis to be an effective pathogen, while work continues to understand their role in causing disease. “I have always been fascinated by how ‘life’ works,” Garsin said. “Identifying the factors that allow bacterial pathogens to cause disease will potentially lead to new targets for antimicrobial drug design, and understanding what constitutes a beneficial immune response will potentially allow us to manipulate the immune response to our advantage.”