The Future Of Microbiology

Featuring molecular bacteriologist, Dr Martina Sanderson-Smith

“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Dr. Martina Sanderson-Smith is a molecular bacteriologist. Molecular biology is a branch of biology that concerns the molecular basis of biological activity between biomolecules in the various systems of a cell, including the interactions between DNA, RNA, proteins and their biosynthesis, as well as the regulation of these interactions. Martina engages in STEM community outreach programs and was recently awarded the Frank Fenner award by the Australian Society of Microbiology which recognises distinguished contributions in any area of Australian research in microbiology.

What are you researching or working on in 2019/2020?

I am a molecular bacteriologist who strives to understand how different bacterial species cause disease, and identify new ways of preventing infection. There are millions of bacterial species, and the majority are not harmful. However, some bacterial species are responsible for causing devastating infection. I am trying to understand why some people get many serious infections over the course of their life, while other people get fewer, milder infections.

My research team at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) has developed many techniques to study how bacteria interact with human cells and molecules. One of the bacteria we study is Group A streptococcus, which is responsible for high rates of throat and skin infections in children, and is also responsible for Rheumatic Heart Disease, and the “flesh-eating” disease, necrotising fasciitis. We have discovered that this bacterium is able to recognise small sugar molecules on the surface of human cells and use these to attach and cause infection. This discovery is exciting because we might be able to design drugs that trick the bacteria into attaching to similar molecules, preventing attachment to human cells. Over the next year, my team will continue this work to determine which sugars on human cells change during the course of a bacterial infection. We will also be testing different “sugar cocktails” to see if they can prevent bacterial attachment.

A major challenge we face with respect to treating bacterial infections is the emergence of antimicrobial resistant bacterial species. Antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, is a process where microorganisms become resistant to the drugs we use to kill them. AMR is one of the biggest threats to human health today, and it extends beyond human populations. Evidence suggests there is overlap between AMR in humans, animals and the environment. The full extent of this, and the implications for human and animal health are not well understood. I am working with Dr Bethany Hoye (UOW) and Dr Peter Newton (ISLHD and IHMRI) to study the crossover between antimicrobial resistant bacteria in the environment and human populations. We are trying to identify environmental sources of AMR, and determine if there is transmission of antimicrobial resistant bacteria between different populations. This will help us better understand the extent of AMR in our local environment, and movement of AMR between humans and wildlife, and within wildlife.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the most innovative or exciting things emerging over the next few years?

The field of microbiology has been revolutionised in recent years with new areas in the study of the human microbiome (the trillions of microorganisms that live on and in our bodies), and increased capacity for whole genome sequencing leading to completely new areas of research. Scientists now understand that microorganisms that live on and in our bodies may play a significant role in human health. As we acquire increasingly large genomic data sets, we need a parallel expansion in technology to study the mechanisms of microbial interaction with humans. New imaging techniques like the high-resolution microscopy and CryoEM facilities in Molecular Horizons at UOW will lead the way in developing methods to visualise interactions between microbes and their environment.

What are some of the things readers should be cautious/wary of over the next few years?

In a world where news is fast-paced, it is easy to be influenced by misinformation that is presented as fact by celebrities. Part of being a scientist is being precise and accurate. This approach has led to life-saving medical advancements, but it can be slow progress and does not always make for great headlines. As big data sets emerge in new areas of microbiology it can be very easy for data to be over interpreted, or misrepresented. I encourage people to be careful about where they source their information, and to remember that just because there is a correlation or association between two things, it does not mean that one thing causes the other.

Where do you believe major opportunities lie for people thinking about future career options?

Solving the big problems of the future will require a multidisciplinary approach. Currently, there is a growing need for scientists with a mix of biology, mathematical and computational skill sets to develop new bioinformatics tools. You need the maths and computer skills to develop tools, but without biology you won’t know what questions you want answered. Outside of this, I think there will be opportunities across a range of sectors for people with a STEM background. Knowing what questions to ask, how to problem solve, how to think critically and analytically and respond to change are all key STEM skills that have value in many industries.

What is the best piece of advice you could offer to our readers?

Be curious, be collaborative and don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. Science and research are often very challenging, and there will be many failures along the way, but there is so much to be gained from surrounding yourself with a network that is diverse, supportive and collegial.

Tell us a bit about the Frank Fenner award, and the Australian Society of Microbiology (ASM) conference coming up

The Australian Society for Microbiology Frank Fenner Award is given annually to recognise distinguished contributions in any area of Australian research in microbiology by scientists in a formative stage of their career. It is rewarding to know that Senior Microbiologists, many of whom I look up to and aspire to be like, see value in the work that I am doing. The ASM is always a fantastic conference. It is a great opportunity to keep up to date with breakthroughs in broad areas of microbiology, and to engage with a group of scientists who are as passionate about microbiology as I am.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MARTINA SANDERSON-SMITHSFor more from Associate Professor Martina Sanderson-Smith you can visit her UOW Scholars profile, which links to her papers and publications.