Meet FEMS Expert: Petra Dersch

21-05-18 Carianne Buurmeijer

This month we are joined by Prof Petra Dersch, who is a FEMS Expert from the European Academy of Microbiology (EAM). The EAM is a leadership group of around 150 eminent microbiology experts who came together in 2009 to amplify the impact of microbiology and microbiologists in Europe.

Petra is based at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Germany, and is interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying bacterial infection of the intestines.  

What are you currently researching?

“We decipher the different stages of the infection process of enteric pathogens, in particular enteropathogenic Yersinia species and study the reprogramming of the bacterial virulence strategies and triggered host responses upon entry from the intestinal tract into deeper tissues. The most challenging aspect of this project has been the set-up of multi-interdisciplinary approaches involving infection biologist, structural biologists, bioinformaticians and immunologists, but it is exactly this multidisciplinary challenging approach that I have enjoyed the most!”

What are your future hopes for this research?

“A better understanding of the dynamics of infection processes and the individual, heterogenic response of pathogen, microbes and host cells in the gut and infected tissue. I hope to see this work impacting the field of microbiology: high-resolution of infections processes decipher new bacterial virulence strategies and host responses which are important to address when anti-infectives are designed.”

What is your research team like?

“There are 10-12 people in the team consisting of Bachelor-Master-PhD students and postdoc, as well as 1 senior scientist. There is 50% team and 50% individual work and we have regular meetings with individual group members and groups working together on related topics, regular seminars (lab and literature).”

What has been your most memorable moment in a lab (or in the field) thus far in your career?

“My ‘Antrittsvorlesung‘, the first talk you give to be introduced to the faculty as a new professor. I gave a talk about the bubonic plague and my lab surprised me with a death parade in which they were dressed up as plague victims, plague doctors or the death himself…

Another great moment was the Children University in which 8-12 years old kids attended my lecture on infectious diseases and asked questions which I wished my Bachelor students would ask me!”

What has been a memorable ‘breakthrough moment’ for you?

“Understanding the sophisticated regulation of a secretion system that injects bacterial toxins into host cells upon host cell contact.  This is something we are still working on – it is fascinating how many different control systems evolved to control one single virulence factor of a bacterium to have a maximal output (fast and efficient killing of immune cells) with the least possible effort and waste of energy.”

To find out more about the inspiring network of microbiology experts we work with, take a look at their profiles.

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