APS News

Kavli Ideas Challenge Announces 2017 Winners

Microbes bring together innovative minds from all science disciplines

May 8, 2017 | Rachel Gaal

In October 2016, The American Society for Microbiology teamed up with the American Chemical Society and APS to support an "ideas challenge," aimed at bringing together teams of scientists to study the microscopic worlds around (and in) us. The Kavli Microbiome Ideas Challenge, which is funded by the Kavli Foundation, will award $1M in total shared among three recipients to launch their research. The winners, chosen by a scientific advisory board, come from backgrounds in chemistry, biology, physics, and engineering — but their combined ingenuity and new perspectives will help propel our understanding of microbial life.

The first winning team, led by Raghuveer Parthasarathy of the University of Oregon, will use biophysics techniques to dive deep into the DNA of microbes. Parthasarathy focuses his research on microbial communities to identify their structure and dynamics. The new challenge for Parthasarathy and his team is to create genetic switches, using the grant from the Ideas Challenge. Just like a light switch, these DNA-based circuits can turn on and off particular genes and simultaneously activate specific chemicals to give off fluorescent light, acting as a beacon to researchers. These tools will enable new, experimental approaches for studying animal-associated microbial communities as ecosystems.

Researchers from the University of Washington will use their Kavli grant to combine chemistry and engineering to "listen" to microbes. Ashleigh Theberge, a professor in the department of chemistry at Washington, develops analytical chemistry tools to uncover the underlying chemical mechanisms in microbial life. Her team wants to develop a new tool to learn how these communities of cells communicate, with the help of cellular traps. These engineered traps will act like sorting machines — picking out key molecules from a mix of molecular noise to eavesdrop on the chemical signals produced by specific microbes. These traps could help researchers understand how the communities of microbes communicate, which might be a key discovery to help ward off spreading bacterial infections.

At the Israel Institute of Biology, a team lead by Roy Kishony will take the mapping of cells to a new level — using a technique called "micro-droplet co-localization." This novel approach uses fluorescent markers to elucidate the function of proteins and other molecules in their microbial environments. This will allow Kishony and his team to create a comprehensive map of the interactions that occur between different bacteria. Their research will uncover which species support and inhibit the growth of others, and it will serve as a basis for discovering natural mediators of species interactions.

Visit Kavli Ideas Challenge to learn more.


Credit: American Society for Microbiology