Despite their small size, bacteria have a powerful impact on the world around them. They achieve this via strength in numbers in biofilm communities. Beyond its clear fundamental and applied importance, studying biofilms represents a unique opportunity to combine approaches from disparate areas of microbiology, including rapidly evolving methods in molecular genetics, microfluidics, confocal microscopy, and ecological and evolutionary analysis. Major areas of prior and future work are noted below, and lab members are encouraged to pursue their own particular interests as well.
Mechanics and Population Ecology of the Biofilm Matrix
A defining feature of biofilms is the secretion of a sticky extracellular matrix, composed of polysaccharide, protein, and DNA polymers. We are interested in how the mechanisms of biofilm production, and especially extracellular matrix secretion, influence the micro-ecology of cell-cell interactions, population dynamics, and community assembly. This topic bears on the fundamental biology of microbes, and on the pathogenesis of biofilm-dependent infections, such as those that damage the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis.
Bacteria-Phage Interactions in Biofilm Environments
Exposure to viral parasites, called bacteriophages, is a ubiquitous feature of bacterial life. Bacteria-phage interaction has been studied for decades, but we know relatively little about how these interactions play out in a biofilm context. We use novel methods in live infection tracking, microscopy, and individual-based simulation to make headway in this area, which unites spatial disease dynamics, host-parasite coevolution, and microbiome community ecology. This work is in collaboration with Knut Drescher (Max Planck Institute), Vanni Bucci (U Mass – Dartmouth) and Sara Mitri (University of Lausanne).
Theory of Microbial Interactions Under Spatial Constraint
While embedded in biofilms, bacteria of different strains and species become spatially assorted in various ways depending on environmental inputs – such as fluid flow, surface topography, and nutrient availability – as well as the many types of interactive bacterial phenotypes, which are extraordinarily diverse. We develop conceptual and simulation-based theory to understand how social evolution occurs in biofilms, and what implications this might have for biofilm functioning at larger scales. This work is in collaboration with Kevin Foster (University of Oxford), Vanni Bucci (U Mass – Dartmouth), Juan Bonachela (University of Glasgow), and Joao Xavier (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center).