Western Mail Profiles: Dr Eric Tippmann, Cardiff University

‘Setting the record straight about bacteria’

Dr Eric Tippmann is a lecturer in the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University

At the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University, we use a variety of advanced genetic technologies in our research.

Much of this research would not be possible without using very simple model organisms, though even uttering their names, for example E.coli, likely causes panic in some readers.

To this end, I have drafted a letter to the lowest of the low because I believe they often get too much bad press when their actual importance to medicine and science goes largely unsung:

Dear bacteria, on behalf of humanity, it’s high time we came together, put aside our differences and try and work out a truce in the war that has been raging between some of your species and ours.

For starters, there was that whole plague thing back in the 14th century where just one of your species lost the plot and wiped out nearly half of Europe’s population. And although it has been 700 years, we still take issue with that one. In fact, only just this year we were able to sequence the entire genome of the guilty species.

We have, of course, indiscriminately massacred your kind as well. As you know, we had no problems in engaging in heavy chemical warfare ever since we stumbled over the discovery of penicillin in the early part of the 20th century. But it has since become too clear that declaring victory over the bacterial kingdom then was premature, if not entirely arrogant, on our part.

It was not long after penicillin that you began to flaunt your prowess for survival. Partly as a result of our clumsy tactics – gross mismanagement through the over-prescription of antibiotics in humans and animals, etc – you sent in MRSA and other superbugs.

With these and other species of bacteria, you repeatedly demonstrate your awe-inspiring ability to evolve resistance to our drugs, sometimes requiring just 10 hours to do so. To add insult to injury, you have even shown you can subside solely on our antibiotics as your only source of food.

So where can we go from here? As an act of good faith, I will briefly describe the tremendous benefits of just one species – E.coli – to microbiology and biotechnology. We know more about E.coli than any other organism on the planet, and it is not simply because it sometimes shows up as a contaminant in food.

Most strains of E.coli are harmless, which is good since they populate the intestinal tract of humans about 30 days after birth and reside there our entire lives. E.coli is popular in the laboratory as it allows us to easily manipulate DNA, generate proteins that lead to new therapies or allow us to create better enzymes to harness energy more efficiently.

Regardless of how it is used, science has advanced considerably on the back – er, I mean membrane – of this one single-celled organism.

So, we’re fully prepared to let bygones be bygones. What do you say?

To contact Eric please email tippmann@cardiff.ac.uk.

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 26th December 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.