Awards Database

Scialog: Collaborative Teams - 2016

Seppe  Kuehn

Seppe Kuehn

University of Illinois, Physics

Paul Blainey

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Biological Engineering

High-dimensional context dependence of a ubiquitous ecological interaction

Like most people, microbes also tend to be members of a larger community. While people participate in their community’s economy and social institutions, microbes take part in complex molecular exchanges.

Seppe Kuehn and Paul Blainey note these microbial interactions – say, in oceans or streams -- can be mutually beneficial, antagonistic or both, and they are mediated by many excreted metabolites including organic carbon from photosynthetic organisms and complex metabolites, such as vitamins, excreted by many different types of bacteria.

The two researcher hypothesize that the many and varied micro-organisms that make up any given stable community have evolved to structure their interactions in ways favoring that stability. Kuehn and Blainey have each received a $50,000 Scialog award to mount an innovative, high-throughput, droplet-based microfluidic technique to measure the growth of a model community under hundreds of precisely specified chemical conditions and with great efficiency.

Kuehn’s lab will construct a model community of Synechococcus, sometimes referred to as blue-green algae, and Vibrio, a metabolically flexible bacterium. Both organisms are common members of marine microbial communities. They are known to interact metabolically and are readily cultured in the lab. The researchers will use fluorescent markers to keep tabs on the two organisms. -- Kuehn

The team will use a droplet microfluidics technology developed by Blainey to construct all 1,800 pair-wise combinations of a set of 60 nutrient conditions on a single 60x60mm glass microscope slide containing 50,000 micro-wells. Currently they are using this technology to screen 250,000-plus drug combinations for novel antibacterial compounds.

“Building on this success,” the researchers say, “we aim to reconfigure our platform for co-culture of Synechococcus and Vibrio across a vast set of chemical environments.”

Assuming they are successful, many investigators will likely be interested to use their approach to test interactions among a variety of micro-organisms, giving us much greater insight into the fine points of microbial communities and environmental issues, such as pollution, in general. 

 Kuehn and Blainey are among more than 60 early career scientists participating in Scialog: Molecules Come to Life, a three-year program jointly sponsored by Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the Simons Foundation. Scialog supports research, intensive dialog and community building to address scientific challenges of global significance. Within each multi-year initiative, Scialog Fellows collaborate in high-risk discovery research on untested ideas and communicate their progress and form new collaborations in annual conferences.

Molecules Come to Life focuses on such questions as, what are the fundamental principles that make a collection of molecules within a cell produce behaviors that we associate with life? How do molecules combine and dynamically interact to form functional units in cells, and how do cells themselves interact to form more complex lifeforms?

The researchers formed their collaboration at a Scialog conference held earlier this year in Tucson, Arizona. There scientists from diverse fields of biology, physics and chemistry engaged in intensive discussions designed to produce creative ideas for innovative research.

“Scialog aims to encourage collaborations between theorists and experimentalists,” said RCSA Program Director Richard Wiener. “And, we encourage approaches that are driven by theory and coarse-grained modeling, that are testable by experiments.”

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