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Dr. Leah Martin-Visscher working with a pipette.
Dr. Leah Martin-Visscher working with a pipette.
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The exquisite power of bacteria

What if you could tell those tiny bacterial soldiers to eliminate the unwanted bacteria causing your food to rot? That’s what Dr. Leah Martin-Visscher, Associate Professor of Chemistry, is hoping to achieve.

The world of bacteria is one at war. Bacteria fight for control of space, resources, places to thrive, and in doing so, affect things like your health, or how fast your food goes rotten.

What if you could tell those tiny bacterial soldiers to eliminate the unwanted bacteria causing your food to rot? That’s what Dr. Leah Martin-Visscher, Associate Professor of Chemistry, is hoping to achieve.

Martin-Visscher’s goal is to control good bacteria to act as a bio-preservative for food — a natural alternative to over-processing for artificially longer shelf life.

“A key thing any chemist recognizes,” Martin-Visscher explains, “is that what we are able to do and make in the lab pales in comparison to the amazing phenomena that occur naturally in the real world. What bacteria are able to do and make is immensely more exquisite.”

‘Good’ bacteria are millions of times more powerful than our synthetic antimicrobial agents produced to control bad bacteria. Finding a way of using these bacteria to eliminate the unwanted ones taps into nature’s powerhouse.

To do this, Martin-Visscher’s research is focused on understanding how certain types of bacteria target and kill their competitors using small proteins called bacteriocins. Working with undergraduate researchers at King’s and collaborators at the University of Alberta, Martin-Visscher’s research has uncovered a new bacteriocin produced by bacteria commonly found in fish and meat products. She is now exploring how the producer organisms protect themselves from these toxic peptides.

In 2017, alumna Sarah Vander Ende, (B.Sc ’18), began research on an earlier phase of the project involving exploring and manipulating the bacteria’s DNA.

“We’re working with such tiny volumes of solution, and you can’t even see the DNA directly. Yet, in just a tiny droplet of solution, we’re able to manipulate DNA—it’s incredible,” Martin-Visscher says.

Angelle Britton, a biology major in her fourth and final year at King’s, completed research in the summer of 2019 focused on identifying which gene was responsible for conferring immunity and confirmed that the immunity protein was in the bacterium’s membrane.

Student involvement has been essential in furthering this research and Martin-Visscher believes the independent lab study is invaluable. “If all you did was sit in the classroom or read textbooks…it’s a different experience than if you get to hold a tube, add solutions, manipulate the DNA, and know you’re doing it yourself. It’s a really important part of learning to me—it’s a sensory experience.”

This year, another phase of the research began: answering how the immunity protein provides protection. By mutating various parts of the immunity protein and seeing what changes occur, Martin-Visscher can determine which parts of the protein are essential to its immunity. “With knowledge of how bacteria kill each other while protecting themselves, we can begin to think about using bacteria directly to control and eliminate undesirable bacteria,” says Martin-Visscher. In addition to increasing the shelf life of food, this understanding could potentially lead to creating brand new antibiotics.

This is an exciting, but lengthy, process. “There isn’t instant gratification in this type of work,” she said. “You never know until the next day what the results will be. You’re either elated or you’re not. It’s living in hopeful anticipation—it’s probably the best descriptor about what I love most about this work.”

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