March 3, 2019

Understanding the survival mechanisms of bacteria

In the spring of 2018, Ditlev E. Brodersen received a Hallas-Møller Ascending Investigator Grant of DKK 10 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. These grants support talented and independent associate professors in the effort to reach their full potential and the highest international level within their field.

The coffee and biscuits on Ditlev E. Brodersen’s small meeting table provide a nice setting for a rather complicated discussion about the life and survival of microorganisms.

In April 2018, the Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded Ditlev E. Brodersen a Hallas-Møller Ascending Investigator Grant, which will provide the financial basis for the work that he and his research team will carry out over the next 5 years.

Hallas-Møller Ascending Investigator Grants are part of a major new DKK 2.4 billion Research Leader Programme initiative from the Foundation targeting the most talented researchers at all levels. The Programme comprises three types of grants aimed at research leaders at different stages of their careers –including researchers at the associate professor level.

“Recently, the funding trend in natural science research has targeted young ‘upcoming’ researchers as well as the more established researchers at the peak of their research careers,” explains Ditlev E. Brodersen. “The group in between, the one to which I belong, has become somewhat invisible. This is not an ideal situation, because there is lots of potential here, and this is precisely what the Hallas-Møller Ascending Investigator Grants will help to change.”

Multidrug-resistant bacteria are the greatest threat to our health

Ditlev E. Brodersen leads a group of 10 researchers, of whom four are employed as PhD students and postdoctoral fellows in temporary positions, and the rest are BSc and MSc students. Ditlev completed his own PhD degree in 1999 at Aarhus University and spent the following 4 years at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. In 2003, he returned to the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. Ditlev E. Brodersen began his career as a chemist but has since specialized in biology.

“Aarhus University has one of the strongest research communities in the Nordic countries within structural biology, where we investigate the three-dimensional structure of biological molecules using various biophysical methods. This was precisely what made it attractive for me to return here,” says Ditlev E. Brodersen.

Microorganisms such as bacteria, vira and fungi strongly influence human health and welfare both positively and negatively. Gut bacteria are vital for our digestive system, nutrition and health, but microbes from the external environment can also cause health-threatening infectious diseases and constantly try to evade our immune system to survive. To win this battle, many microorganisms have developed sophisticated defence mechanisms that allow them to overcome periods of starvation and exposure to heat or antibiotics.

“Our projects seek to understand the fundamental molecular mechanisms underlying the survival mechanisms of bacteria. This may potentially have far-reaching consequences at a time when we are increasingly challenged by the ability of bacteria to develop antibiotic resistance. To put this in perspective, WHO currently considers multidrug-resistant bacteria to be the greatest threat to our health,” emphasizes Ditlev E. Brodersen.

However, this does not mean that the group’s work directly targets developing antibiotics and specific treatment methods. The ultimate aim of this basic research is to provide a basis for developing future antimicrobial drugs and treatment regimens.

According to Ditlev E. Brodersen, “This is not about actual pharmaceutical research. Our work mainly results in new insight and knowledge that is disseminated through scientific articles and publications and will prove their worth in the future, such as in the form of drugs.”

“The Grant is a recognition of our work and what we are striving for, and its relatively long timeframe gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the field. This is vital to generate meaningful results,” concludes Ditlev E. Brodersen.