Jim Tranquada

Occidental College has received a three-year, $430,500 grant from the National Science Foundation to study a bacterium that may someday be used as a natural antibiotic by devouring hard-to-destroy bacterial germs in communities called biofilms.


"Bdellovibrio are everywhere," said Occidental chemistry professor and grant co-investigator Eileen Spain. "They're in soils and in marine environments. We're not genetically engineering it - at least not yet. Rather, we are looking at what it does naturally when it comes across a biofilm."

Specifically, this NSF grant will help professional and student researchers answer questions such as: How does bdellovibrio identify and communicate with its prey? What are the ideal chemical and physical environments for bdellovibrio on the hunt? What are the properties of biofilms that may be vulnerable to bdellovibrio?

The new grant, which is an extension of a previous $396,500 NSF grant for similar research, will fund 18 undergraduate researchers at Occidental, Mt. Holyoke College and State University of New York at New Paltz. The latter two institutions employ the grant's two other co-investigators: Megan Núñez, a former James Irvine Scholar-in-Residence at Occidental and now an associate chemistry professor at Mt. Holyoke; and Megan Ferguson, a former Howard Hughes Medical Institute post-doctoral fellow at Occidental and now an assistant chemistry professor at SUNY-New Paltz.

"This is promising enough to look at it creatively," added Spain. She and Núñez have described bdellovibrio as akin to the human-eating extra-terrestrials in the "Alien" science-fiction films.

Ferguson emphasized the importance of the grant's undergraduate student research component. "When I was an undergrad, I got a lot more out of a project when I could collect and interpret my own data," she said. "Being able to give so many students the opportunity to do research is a real strength."

Both Ferguson and Spain also stressed the interdisciplinary nature of the project, formally titled "Surface and Analytical Chemistry to Elucidate Fundamental Biofilm Properties and Mechanisms of Biofilm Control."

"We've attracted a wide variety of students and collaborators from different disciplines, such as environmental chemistry and biological chemistry," Spain said. "With disciplinary breadth, we are making new discoveries on how this bacterium lives its life."

For more information about the National Science Foundation, go to: www.nsf.gov.