Microbiology

Our Faculty is fully committed to the importance of science research and the benefits that ultimately accrue to society. Our aim is to create and advance scientific knowledge and understanding. This is important or those of us who live and work in Vancouver, BC, Canada… and beyond. We are a global community and UBC Science has an important role to play around the world.

Led by members of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, UBC has become one of the strongest institutions in the world in the area of antimicrobial resistance and in the development of new ways for preventing and treating infections. As an example, one of our researchers, Dr. Lindsay Eltis spent the first part of his career in soil bacteria research, looking at how microbes in dirt degrade or break down pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). He has expert knowledge of a process called biocatalysis, where enzymes activate or accelerate chemical reactions. TB scientists had earlier identified genes that helped Mycobacterium tuberculosis—the bacterial agent that causes TB—to survive, but no one knew exactly how the process worked. TB bacilli are unusual in that they can survive in macrophages—large immune cells that normally devour invading pathogens. Dr. Eltis and Microbiology & Immunology colleague Dr. Bill Mohn examined similarities in the function of enzymes involved in PCB degradation and enzymes involved in TB. What they uncovered helps explain how TB survives. They found a suite of genes that contain the information required to make enzymes that degrade the cholesterol found in macrophage cell membranes. The bacilli use the degraded cholesterol for fuel to survive. In most infections, the macrophage is the enemy. In TB it’s dinner. The discovery offers the potential for an entirely new class of therapeutics—answering a critical need for new treatments to combat emerging drug resistant strains. Now that scientists know cholesterol is essential for TB bacilli’s survival, they can work to inhibit the enzymes that are responsible for cholesterol degradation. In effect, they would be taking cholesterol off the menu and starving the infection to death. “This is a classic example of the serendipitous nature of discovery,” says Eltis. “You just can’t predict the benefits that spin off from good research. This work reinforces the need for funding basic research.”

Curiosity drives basic research and there is no way to predict what researchers might discover. Such unexpected outcomes are an essential part of the research process. Funding for these projects is offered by various government agencies, international foundations, corporations and concerned private individuals. Donor support allows UBC scientists to dedicate more time and resources to basic research projects, unlocking new discoveries and contributing to the understanding of our world.

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