UTM researcher awarded Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowship

Photo of researcher Emiel Visser
Monday, February 12, 2018 - 3:39pm
Blake Eligh

Biophysicist Emiel Visser has become the first U of T Mississauga researcher to be awarded a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Global Fellowship. Visser, who is a member of the Milstein Laboratory for Biological Physics, will investigate new techniques that could help to stop antibiotic-resistant bacteria in its tracks.

Visser, who joined the Milstein Laboratory in November, was previously a postdoctoral researcher with the Molecular Plasmonics lab at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. He will spend two years at UTM before returning to the Netherlands to complete the third and final year of the fellowship.

Visser’s area of expertise is in tethered particle motion—a method used to study how polymers, such as DNA, interact with other entities, such as proteins. His research in the Netherlands contributed to the development a new biosensing technique that could help medical staff detect the telltale proteins that confirm a heart attack diagnosis within a few minutes, rather than the hours-long wait for results from traditional laboratory blood tests.

Working with associate professor of chemical and physical sciences Joshua Milstein, Visser has turned his attention to bacterial DNA and its relationship to H-NS proteins, also known as histone-like nucleoid-structuring proteins. “These HN-S proteins interact with DNA and enteric bacteria—the good bacteria that live in our guts,” Visser says. The bacteria use H-NS proteins to bind together with DNA from outside sources, such as other bacteria. “In your guts, there are millions and millions of bacteria living closely together—it’s basically a playground for bacteria to spread these genes around,” Visser says. “Through horizontal gene transfer, bacteria can take small strands of outside DNA and build it into their own DNA.”

Research shows that H-NS proteins also play a role in the expression of genes, allowing bacteria to turn DNA information on or off. However, Visser says, “how H-NS proteins interact with DNA isn’t fully understood.” Visser and Milstein will use a special microscope and laser equipment to observe and manipulate the process. “Tethered particle motion gives us a very precise way to investigate these transcription systems, and the optical laser gives us a handle to manipulate and play around with the system,” he says. “We hope to see the transcription of a single DNA strand as it being transcribed.”

“We know that horizontal gene transfer plays a big role in the spread of antibiotic resistance and in the virulence of certain bacteria,” he says. “We hope to understand how H-NS passes transcription of DNA, and use this in a smart way in the future to prevent or even reverse the spread of antibiotic resistance.”

Named for the two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Global Fellowship is funded by the European Union and is comparable to the federally-funded Canadian Banting Fellowships.