Ten years ago, I started my journey as a biology student. I was convinced I would make huge contributions to the field of cancer research (no lack of confidence here!). That all changed as I learned that biology had much more to offer: physiology, taxonomy, ecology, behavior biology, and finally, microbiology. I remember opening up Campbell Biology 8th edition and finding the famous image of a carnivorous fungi trapping a nematode (a small worm) by a ring of hyphae. It was love at first sight. I took every microbiology course I could and eventually found my way into immunology and host-pathogen interactions. How people go through their lives not obsessing about microbes and antibiotics is beyond me.

Nematode under light microscopy. Credit: jxfzsy.

Bacteria are everywhere. Infections are caused by bacteria invading the body from the outside through polluted food or water, through air or through a contaminated wound. Not all bacteria are “bad” though. The body is colonized by “good” bacteria that have important functions in digestion and in keeping us healthy by outcompeting the bad bacteria. Keep in mind that bacteria do whatever is best for themselves. Some of the otherwise “good” bacteria cause disease under certain circumstances, for instance if the immune system is compromised during chemotherapy or radiation.

The immune system consists of several types of specialized cells that together defend and protect the body from invading bacteria and other microorganisms and cells gone rogue. The first line of defense is made out of phagocytes, cells that engulf and eat (phagocytose) microorganisms, dead or dying cells and even cancer cells. Some bacteria survive being eaten and live within the phagocytes, causing chronic infections that can be very difficult to cure, such as tuberculosis.

Scanning electron micrograph of an immune cell phagocytosing anthrax bacteria (orange). Credit: Volker Brinkmann, PLoS Pathogens 1(3), DOI:10.1371.

In the last few years, I have been studying the interactions between intracellular bacteria and the phagocytes they reside in. My work has focused on Mycobacteria, the type of bacteria that cause tuberculosis and the lesser known non-tuberculous mycobacterial infections. Because killing bacteria that hide within immune cells is difficult, understanding the interactions between bacteria, immune cells and antibiotics is important for identifying new treatment strategies. Antibiotic resistance is an increasing problem in mycobacterial infections, but also with other bacterial species. There are now strains of common infections than can survive both the most used as well as the back-up antibiotics. The idea of a “post-antibiotic era” is frightening and would make most hospital procedures dangerous or impossible to perform. To overcome this challenge, scientists are looking for new antibiotics, new drugs targets and even completely new treatment strategies.

The immune system plays a huge role in the ability of our body to handle disease. We need our immune system to be tuned just right, fully functional but not overly active. In my LIFE Apps blog, Immune LIFE, we will explore how the immune system is affected by lifestyle choices. We will look into what stress does to our immune cells, if food really can boost the immune system (and why an “immune boost” is not necessarily a good thing), how exercise can benefit the immune system and much more.

In parallel I will (hopefully) start a postdoctoral research position and new research projects that take me into the land of infectious disease and public health. I hope to learn more about the development of antibiotic resistance in the context of global health. As I start the next ten years of my career, I’m grateful and excited that I get to join LifeOmic as a guest blogger. I look forward to working with personalized approaches to health in this blog and public health in my “day job.”


Credits & Resources:

Featured image: Immune Cells Surrounding Hair Follicles in Mouse Skin. Credit: NIAID

Learn more: Meet your microbes, TED Talk by Jonathan Eisen