New EAM Member: Prof. Sigal Ben-Yehuda

13-02-2020

At the end of 2019, the European Academy of Microbiology (EAM) elected eleven new members from across different European countries and disciplines, who are given the opportunity to present themselves and their research at the upcoming EAM Members meeting (March 27-28 2020 in La Granja, Spain).

New EAM Members are:

For more information, please contact: eam@fems-microbiology.org

This month, we spoke with Prof. Sigal Ben-Yehuda at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) about her research, and the profession of a microbiologist.

What are you currently researching?

We study three main subjects in our laboratory:

a) Bacterial nanotubes. Our laboratory discovered and characterized intercellular membranous nanotubes formed among neighbouring bacterial cells. We provided evidence that via these junctions bacteria exchange cytoplasmic molecules including, antibiotic resistant proteins and DNA. Our laboratory is now engaged in defining the molecular components and the molecular cargo of nanotubes. We also peruse our recent exciting discovery of the employment of nanotubes by pathogenic bacteria to extract nutrients from mammalian host cells.

b) Strategies employed by bacteriophages to cross species barriers. We explore how bacteriophages (phages) spread in multicellular bacterial communities and how they overcome species barriers. We further investigate if and how bacteria can sense and respond to phage infection of their neighboring cells.

c) Spore dormancy and awakening. Dormant bacterial spores can survive long periods of time and withstand extreme environmental conditions, but possess the remarkable ability to rapidly convert into actively growing cells. Our laboratory studies spore dormancy is maintained and how it is ceased, and what are the first molecular events occurring during revival.

What has been the most unusual or surprising finding in this line of research?

The most unusual finding was the observation that cytoplasmic GFP molecules could be exchanged among neighboring cells of the soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis. We noted that wild-type cells, neighboring GFP-producing cells, gradually acquired a weak fluorescent signal, suggesting that cytoplasmic GFP molecules were being distributed among adjacent cells. These results raised the possibility of the existence of intercellular connections that facilitate this molecular flow, and ultimately led to the discovery of bacterial nanotubes.

What aspect of this research have you most enjoyed?

I enjoy the exploration of something so fundamental, but still new to us. Personally, I enjoy very much to visualize bacteria by time lapse microscopy, I found it fascinating to see how they grow and interact.

Figure: Development of Bacillus subtilis colonies labeled with GFP (green) or mCherry (red) followed by time lapse confocal  microscopy.

What is in your opinion a scientific development microbiologists should keep an eye on?

I find it hard to envision the future with the remarkable progression of science. Though, I think that understanding the rules of multi-species bacterial communities, and the ability to predict inter-species interactions, will take us to a new era of intelligent design of bacterial communities for our own benefit.

What information, either related to the science or the professional path of a microbiologist, do you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?

It is a very long path, sometimes very frustrating, but there is nothing like the joy of adding a major piece to a puzzling scientific question.

About Professor Sigal Ben-Yehuda

I completed my PhD degree at Tel-Aviv University, investigating cell division in budding yeast. I continued my scientific career as a postdoctoral trainee at Harvard University, at the laboratory of Prof. Richard Losick. At Harvard, I studied the developmental process of sporulation in bacteria, and my major achievement was to provide new mechanistic insights into the most critical events occurring upon entry into sporulation (e. g. Ben-Yehuda and Losick, Cell 2002; Ben-Yehuda et al., Science 2003).

Prof. Ben-Yehuda in her office

In 2004, I joined the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the Hebrew University as a principal investigator. My laboratory focuses on the understudied phases of bacterial spore dormancy and awakening (e.g. Segev et al., Cell 2012; Sinai et al., Mol Cell 2015; Zhou et al., PNAS 2019). Still, probably our most significant achievement is the discovery and characterization of intercellular nanotubes formed among neighbouring bacteria (e.g. Dubey and Ben-Yehuda, Cell, 2011; Reviewed in Baidya et al., Curr Opin Microbiol, 2018; Pal et al., Cell 2019; Bhattacharya et al., Cell Reports 2019). This study also prompted the examination of bacteriophage spread in multicellular communities (Tzipilevich et al., Cell 2017), a current research theme in my lab.

Throughout the years I received several awards including the EMBO Young Investigator Award, The Hebrew University President’s Award, The Sir Zelman Cowen Prize, the Shilo Award from the Israel society for microbiology. I also received the European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant in 2008, an ERC-Advance Grant in 2013, and an ERC-Synergy grant in 2018 with Prof. Ilan Rosenshine.

(Cover image: Bacillus subtilis cells grown on solid surface and visualized by Scanning Electron Microscopy with nanotube connecting neighboring cells visible. Cells were false colored.)

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