Montana State University

MSU engineering professor awarded U.S. Army Research Office grant

October 25, 2016 -- Jodi Hausen for MSU News Service

Ross Carlson, professor in the MSU Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Center for Biofilm Engineering, was recently awarded a three-year grant from U.S. Army Research Office for his research on the role different species of bacteria play in microbial communities.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezRoss Carlson, professor in the MSU Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Center for Biofilm Engineering, was recently awarded a three-year grant from U.S. Army Research Office for his research on the role different species of bacteria play in microbial communities.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Ross Carlson, professor in the MSU Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Center for Biofilm Engineering, was recently awarded a three-year grant from U.S. Army Research Office for his research on the role different species of bacteria play in microbial communities. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University professor has received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to further his research on the role different species of bacteria play in microbial communities. The research has the potential to impact society by creating new strategies for liquid fuel production and improving outcomes for wounded soldiers.

Ross Carlson, professor in MSU’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the College of Engineering and the Center for Biofilm Engineering received the three-year, $655,000 grant from the U.S. Army Research Office, or ARO.

Known as biofilms, most bacteria live within diverse communities attached to surfaces and tend to organize themselves for optimal survival, Carlson explained. Each species in a particular collection of bacteria has a different task to maintain the biofilm's effective functioning. Carlson likened these microscopic arrangements to human communities: Human cities are comprised of people doing various jobs: bakers, mail carriers, carpenters, farmers, doctors, professors ... and the more effective people are at their jobs, the more productive the community.

The same holds true for microbes, Carlson said. But little is yet known as to exactly how these communities are structured.

In collaboration with Michael Henson, chemical engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts, Carlson hopes to discover the role various bacteria play within their microbial community and how they organize themselves within a biofilm to achieve those goals.

“If we can understand how these bacterial communities naturally organize spatially, we can use that fundamental understanding to enhance the function of good microbial communities and counter the activity of bad ones,” Carlson said.

For example, the experimental and computer-modeling techniques the researchers are using to design a three-species biofilm to convert agricultural plant waste into isobutanol – a second-generation liquid biofuel – also may be used to engineer other microbial systems, Henson said.

Carlson is co-author of the paper “Metabolic Modeling of a Chronic Wound Biofilm Consortium Predicts Spatial Partitioning of Bacterial Species,” that was published Sept. 7 in BMC Systems Biology, an open-access journal that publishes original research on biological systems.

Non-healing chronic wounds affect an estimated 2 percent of the U.S. population -- about 6 million people -- with treatment costing more than $25 billion a year, the paper states.

The paper, which was also co-authored by Henson along with two of Henson’s doctoral students, Poonam Phalak and Jin Chen, constructs and tests spatial models of bacterial biofilms known to counteract the effectiveness of antibacterial compounds.

The results suggest the two bacterial species -- Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa  -- operate in a complementary and synergistic manner. The waste compounds from one metabolism are used as a food for another metabolism, enhancing the overall productivity of the community and complicating the treatment of chronic wound infections. The researchers, including MSU microbiology doctoral student Lee McGill, are now testing the predictions with experiments to quantify the behaviors and to validate and to refine computer predictions of the synergistic interactions.

A better understanding of the makeup and functioning of chronic-wound biofilm bacteria could potentially lead to new treatments to counteract this effect and promote healing in wounds for soldiers and others who suffer from chronic wounds, Carlson said.

The professors expect to submit other academic papers on their research.

The ARO grant will be split between the two universities and will supplement an approximately $1.3 million, four-year National Institutes of Health grant the engineers received about three years ago.

Jeff Heys, head of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, said Carlson’s research represents the next generation of research in bioprocess engineering and control of medical infections.

“It is only by understanding the interactions within communities of microorganisms that we can help the Army to produce sustainable biofuels or help doctors to eliminate persistent infections,” Heys said.

Contact: Ross Carlson, rossc@montana.edu or (406) 994-3631