My initial steps towards a career research in biochemistry started with an undergraduate degree at Flinders University in Adelaide. However, as a kid from a small town on Kangaroo Island, once I completed my honours year the excitement of the wider world proved stronger than that of a PhD, leading me to an extended absence from experimental science. During this 5 year period I tried my hand at a number of things including: English language teacher in Japan, process engineer at a salt mine in Western Australia and nomadic pan-Eurasian traveller. However, before too long, I felt to pull and excitement of experimental science and enrolled in a PhD at the University of Glasgow.
My PhD brief was, broadly, to discover and investigate antibiotic proteins produced by Gram-negative bacterial pathogens. For this research I was blessed with a supervisor, Dr. Daniel Walker, who enthusiastically encouraged just about any experimental idea that I came up with. This led me to discover and investigate a number of different novel proteins and piece together some of the details of how they kill Gram-negative bacteria down to sub-nanomolar concentrations. I also investigated the potential of these proteins to protect plants from bacterial disease, by creating transgenic plants expressing them. One of these proteins, which I named pectocin M was produced by the plant-pathogen Pectobacterium. This protein was particularly intriguing to me as it consisted of a fusion between a cell wall degrading toxin domain and a horizontally acquired iron-containing plant-like ferredoxin. As it transpired (through a lot of experimental work), Pectobacterium has a specialized import system which allows it to utilize plant-ferredoxin as an iron source, providing it with this vital nutrient during infection. Pectocin M, in what I think is one of the cooler tricks I’ve seen in molecular evolution, utilizes its ferredoxin domain as a Trojan horse, to import the toxin and kill its target cell.
This discovery and its subsequent characterization, kindled my interested in how Gram-negative pathogens utilize TonB-depedent receptors to obtain iron from host-proteins during infection. From March 2015, I am funded by a Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship based jointly at the Lithgow lab at Monash and in Professor Ian Henderson’s lab at Birmingham University. During this fellowship I will investigate and seek of understand (through a combination of structural, molecular and biochemical techniques) the role these proteins play in the virulence of Uropathogenic E. coli.
Abstracts this author is presenting: