Meet H. pylori: the stealth bacteria infecting half the population

Hark, tribespeople of the College of William and Mary! Here, beyond harking upon the gale and thundering our chorus, this blog will ring strong and true and clear with weekly updates on a large and vibrant College community: that of scientific researchers. Hail!

Scientific research is not carried out by codgers in bleak, secretive nooks. Research hardly looks like this anywhere, but especially not at the College. Our nooks are brimming with new ideas. Our codgers innovate by day and liven up the Green Leafe after hours. Scientists, probably make up a good portion of your friend group. There’s nowhere to hide from the army of undergraduate researchers within our liberal arts fortress, but somehow their work eludes campus conversation. I hope “Alma Matter” will chip away at the barrier between the College’s scientific findings and student awareness. I’ll introduce you to a new lab every Thursday. With these reports, hopefully this exciting, multifaceted group can make its rightful contribution to Tribe Pride.

The Forsyth lab team poses in front of the ISC. COURTESY PHOTO /  FORSYTH LAB
The Forsyth lab team poses in front of the ISC. COURTESY PHOTO / FORSYTH LAB

Particularly near and dear to me is Mark Forsyth’s Helicobacter pylori microbiology lab. I have been involved with Dr. Forsyth’s work for about a year and a half, and the experiences I’ve had have cultivated a love of scientific pursuit; I’ve come to understand how fulfilling scientific collaboration can be, and what a venture it actually is. I consider myself extremely lucky to work with the brilliant, fun, and slightly nerdy undergrad group I get to see on a regular basis. Dr. Forsyth has been an incredible mentor throughout my scientific career, and I’ve appreciated having a principal investigator who can fold a joke into the most complicated scientific explanations. I receive understanding and empathy from all fronts in Forsyth’s lab, coupled with a healthy dose of freedom. Catherine Acio, a lab senior, said it best: “Lab provides a unique experience where we get to use what we learn in the classroom and apply it to real-world questions and solve problems that have not yet been explored.” After hanging around in the ISC for two years, I’ve realized how hard it is to come by an environment like this in labs, and I thank my proverbial lucky stars for having aligned to open up a spot for me in this lab.

I spoke with a few more labmates to talk about their experiences with Forsyth, and the positive responses were overwhelming. Sophomore Danielle Horridge said “Helicobacter pylori is super cool (potentially a living carcinogen, what?!)” and that “the lab environment is one that fosters not only learning, mentorship, and collaboration, but also friendship!”

But why is Danielle excited about this “H.P.” — Heliobacter pylori —  in the first place? What is it?

We use this bacteria as our model for genomics research. Genomics, as defined by Wikipedia, is a discipline which applies recombinant DNA, sequencing methods, and bioinformatics to analyze genome function and structure. The relatively simple “plasmid” DNA of bacteria lends itself to this kind of investigation, and its status as a health issue makes knowledge we glean from it worthwhile.

On the third floor of the ISC, we use these methods to manipulate regions of the bacterium’s genome associated with H.P.’s pathogenicity and adaptability. What’s especially great about the work that we do is it is easily applicable to other biological fields.

Heliobacter pylori is a lot closer to home than you might realize: It infects about half of the world’s population, and can cause ulcers and some forms of gastric cancer. More often than not, people living with H.P. don’t notice it, as most infections are asymptomatic. In this way, H.P. is like many microorganisms: It shapes our lives and gets away with it because it is too small to see.

It seems that in more ways than one, H.P. is a stealth master: it can dwell in our digestive tracts, usually without any signs of its residence, and evade public awareness. Our lab focuses on how it remains stealthy. We know H.P. is extremely in tune with its environment. It uses this information to express genes which help it adapt to hostile places. For this reason, many of the projects tinker with genes which code for the tools H.P. uses to respond to its environment.

Heliobacter pylori’s most important tools are signal transduction pathways. These systems are composed of a sensor which detects certain environmental factors, like pH, and a responder which triggers gene expression that helps the bacterium survive. Signal transduction pathways are central to H.P’s ability to live in our gastrointestinal tracts. For example, the sensor detects low stomach pH, so it “tells” the responder to express genes which will lead to urease and ammonia production in the immediate environment, compounds that act together as a buffer. Our hope is that by learning how these tools work, we can identify targets for future treatments.

The team is persistent enough that even with Mark on sabbatical this year, research has continued. Adapting to a lab run by an individual 650 miles away is challenging, but thanks to the contributions of other professors in the biology department, not to mention Forsyth’s commitment to keeping in touch with all team members, projects have continued smoothly. Forsyth always joins our lab meetings via Skype, and speaks to every researcher each week.

Our success so far wouldn’t have been possible without the team’s optimism. This ‘Forsyth lab family dynamic’ extends to all members of his team; I’ve experienced it in many ways: in the strong support network, in the lab’s graduate students’ progression into role models and in the interest members have for each other’s projects. It is a product of everyone’s passion for what their work, coupled with their curiosity towards Mark’s research question. Acio puts it in another, probably more eloquent way: “To me, the lab is not just some extracurricular activity that looks good on a resume, but it’s much more than that. It’s a place for not only academic growth, but personal growth, and most importantly, it’s a family.”


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