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Microbiology & Parasitology


Since the development of the "germ theory of disease" in the mid-1800s, a spectrum of microorganisms have been identified as the causative agents of many infectious diseases. Pathogenic bacteria, protozoan and metazoan parasites have threatened human and animal health throughout recorded history and remain major causes of illness worldwide. These pathogens undergo rapid genetic change and evolution, and are subject to intense selection pressure arising from the use of chemotherapeutic drugs and vaccines. As novel variants of these agents arise, the danger of less controllable disease is increasing not diminishing. In particular, emerging multi-drug resistance threatens to overwhelm our capacity to control infections. Thus, although substantial progress has been made in combating disease, there are reasons to believe the threat of infection may intensify in future. Consequently, there is a vital need to further increase our understanding of both the basic biology of pathogenic organisms and the concomitant host immune responses to them. In turn, this will underpin the development of new drugs, vaccines and vaccine delivery systems.

The Course

The Microbiology and Parasitology Option focuses on the mechanisms that underlie diseases caused by a number of important bacteria, protozoa and helminths. Agents of communicable disease that lie at the forefront of current research efforts or represent major neglected diseases of mankind are discussed, although the course is not constructed around a taxonomic approach. Emphasis is placed on the combined use of molecular, cellular and structural biology to unravel detailed structure-function relationships underlying pathogen-host interactions. The course also adopts a broader biological approach and addresses issues relating to epidemiology, vaccine development and chemotherapy. Sufficient background is covered to enable students to appreciate how host responses to parasite infections can result in useful immunity and sometimes in harmful immunopathology. Additionally, disease control projects in Africa linked to members of the Division are used to illustrate contemporary issues in the control of infectious diseases.

Research Projects

There is a diversity of research interests of the Division. Research in Microbiology is concentrated on elucidating molecular mechanisms that underlie the virulence of pathogenic bacteria. This work involves the study of toxin secretion, the interaction of toxins with mammalian target cells, studies of how bacteria invade mammalian cells and subvert their function, the regulation of virulence gene expression, and bacterial cell motility and multicellular behaviour. These studies thus encompass molecular biology, cellular biology, biochemistry and structural biology. Parasitology consists of research on protozoan and helminth infections and their subsequent host-immune responses. Work is in progress on the analysis of the genomes of the protozoan parasites Toxoplasma gondii and African trypanosomes, and the application of genomics to the investigation of the molecular basis for drug resistance, virulence and infectivity. Helminth research is concentrated particularly on schistosomiasis. Laboratory studies are combined with extensive human population-based fieldwork in Kenya and Uganda. These studies are focused on the immuno-epidemiological factors that control infection and transmission and human morbidity.

Research projects are available which cover a wide range of topics, and students are almost always able to match a topic to their own particular interests. Other scientists in laboratories whose work is closely related to the Division's, such as members of staff of the Public Health Laboratory, also contribute projects.

Examples of Current/Previous Projects

2011/2012 Projects
  • How does Vibrio cholerae build a single flagellum at its old cell pole?
  • Interactions of invariant surface glycoproteins of trypanosomes
  • How do Salmonella build a flagellum on their cell surface?
  • Expression pattern and immune responses to Schistosoma mansoni profilin: a potential target for the protective IgE response in man
  • Preparation of large DNA with a controllable phage lysis gene
2010/2011 Projects
  • Determination of specificity of phosphoinositide-binding domains in trypanosomes
  • Development of a universal bacterial lysis and nucleic acid extraction method and application to molecular diagnostic testing
  • Molecular epidemiology of methicillin resistant Staphylocuccus aureus (MRSA) at Addenbrookes hospital
  • Water contact patterns and risk factors for Schistosoma mansoni infection in a Ugandan fishing community
  • Construction of defined mutants in Streptococcus suis
  • Patterns of Host and Parasite Species in the Global Mammal Parasite Database
  • Expression pattern and immune responses to Schistosoma mansoni profilin: a potential target for the protective IgE response in man
  • Mechanism of virulence effector protein delivery by pathogenic Salmonella
  • How do bacteria build a flagellum on the cell surface?
  • Towards an invertebrate model of prion disease
  • Construction of a whole-cell arsenic biosensor
  • Determining how Campylobacter jejuni ‘gets in shape’
  • Role of ubiquitin in endocytosis and sensitivity to suramin in trypanosomes