Change Text Size
Email Columns Print page
Columns: The Online newspaper for the University of Georgia community
Show Index
October 15, 2012   Columns Articles | Research News | The best defense
Magnify Terns, Rebecca and Michael-h.env.
Rebecca and Michael Terns are seen in their lab at the University of Georgia. Rebecca Terns is a senior research scientist in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. Michael Terns is a distinguished research professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and genetics. 

The best defense

Researchers looking to exploit bacterial immune system for medicine and industry

James Hataway

Public Relations Coordinator

Recent and archived articles by James Hataway

Division of Marketing & Communications
Work: 706-542-6927
By James Hataway | October 15, 2012

Bacteria and archaea are among the smallest forms of life on the planet, but don’t let their size fool you. These simple creatures have persevered for billions of years, thanks in part to a recently discovered immune-like defense system that helps protect them from marauding infectious agents like viruses and plasmids.

The husband-and-wife research team of Michael and Rebecca Terns was one of the first to describe how the bacterial immune system works in a 2009 paper published in Cell. Now, thanks in part to two grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling more than $2.4 million, the Terns lab hopes to find ways of manipulating this bacterial immunity that could have far-reaching implications for a variety of biotechnological and biomedical industries.

“Bacteria, from the pathogens that you hear about on the news to the microbes that normally live in and on our bodies, play a whole range of diverse and important roles in human lives,” said Rebecca Terns, senior research scientist in biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “What we’re studying is a defense system that protects bacteria from viruses.”

The fact that bacteria are vulnerable to viruses is a double-edged sword because to humans they are both powerful enemies and essential allies. On one hand, pathogenic bacteria cause serious and debilitating diseases. On the other hand, many bacteria serve protective functions or are used in industries to clean wastewater, make food, produce medicine and make plastics.

Once they have a better understanding of the various mechanisms involved in bacterial immunity, the Terns lab hopes to develop methods to protect helpful bacteria and destroy those that make people sick.

“We’re trying to bolster this immune system in the good bacteria that we exploit to make foods, pharmaceuticals and biofuels,” said Michael Terns, Distinguished Research Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Genetics. “At the same time, we’re trying to find ways to turn this immune system on itself and kill pathogenic bacteria.”

When a bacterium encounters an invader like a virus, it recognizes the viral DNA, chops it up into pieces and incorporates a segment of the viral DNA into its own genome. As the bacteria experiences more threats from viruses, they accumulate a memory bank of past infections in a special part of their genetic code commonly known as CRISPRs, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.

After this initial step, the bacteria then create special CRISPR-associated proteins that ultimately recognize and destroy the virus if it tries to invade again.

“If we take a bacterium and challenge it with a virus in the lab, overnight most of the bacteria will be killed, but there will be a few survivors that have found a piece of the virus and incorporated it into their own genome,” Michael Terns said. “And the resulting immunity is heritable, because when these survivors reproduce, all new cells exposed to the same virus will survive.”

The Terns lab is working to understand precisely how this process takes place in the bacterium Streptococcus thermophilus, which is commonly used by the dairy industry to make yogurt and cheese, and the archaeon Pyrococcus furiosus, used to make industrially important enzymes and chemicals and to increase heat tolerance in plants.

Discoveries made in the Terns lab also illuminate previously unknown basic microbiological processes, opening the doors for new fields of exploration and new levels of understanding.

More from this issue

  • October 15, 2012

    Slowdown in tax collections leads to budget cuts at UGA

    Another round of budget cuts, called for by Gov. Nathan Deal this summer amid continually disappointing tax revenue collections, led to a 3 percent reduction plan for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal-year budgets. At UGA, that reduction from the state funds currently appropriated for the FY 2013 budget was approximately $11 million. UGA is planning for this cut to continue into next year with this same amount being reduced from its FY 2014 base budget.   Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    Ecologists to study Sun Belt water sustainability

    Researchers in the Odum School of Ecology will work with colleagues from universities across the U.S. Sun Belt on a study of water sustainability in the face of climate change and population growth. The four-year project, to be led by North Carolina State University, is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Arizona State University and Florida International University also are participating in the study. Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    Annual D.W. Brooks Awards presented for excellence in teaching, research, extension

    The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has recognized staff and faculty who have demonstrated excellence in the its teaching, research and extension missions with the annual D.W. Brooks Awards.  Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company to visit for residency

    The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company of Salt Lake City, Utah, will be in residence Oct. 15-17 at the dance department. Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    Accent on Africa

      The university will mark the 25th anniversary of its African Studies Institute with two weeks of events beginning Nov. 1. The celebration will include an international conference, theatrical performances, film screenings, lectures and other events to showcase the richness and diversity of the continent.   Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    New series will examine the science behind obesity

      Visiting professors will discuss the latest ideas about why we eat what we do and why the fat goes where it does as part of a speaker series kicked off this fall by the UGA Obesity Initiative, in partnership with colleges and departments at the university. The series will bring experts from beyond the UGA campus to shed light on the science of obesity.   Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    Narrowing the gap

    Degree completion has been a long-standing priority for the University of Georgia, but now the bar on the number of students earning a college degree is being raised.   Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    Benefits open enrollment to feature HMO plan, Athens Kaiser option

    UGA will hold open enrollment Oct. 15-Nov. 9, and during that time employees can change or enroll in health, dental or other benefits that will take effect Jan. 1. Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    Libraries will hold discussions about open access publishing

    UGA will join the international research community Oct. 22-28 to celebrate Open Access Week. As part of the observance, discussions will held to build awareness about open access publishing, a means of disseminating scholarly research that overturns the traditional subscription model of academic publishing by enabling scholars to share their works with few or no copyright and financial barriers.  Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    On the money: Law school fundraiser makes alumni feel proud to give

    For more than a decade Phyllis Cooke has diligently raised money for the School of Law’s annual fund. She’s become so iconic — her name so synonymous with the fundraising effort — that some alumni call it the “Phyllis Fund.” Continue

  • October 15, 2012

    Third National Guard team trains in Tifton to help Afghans

    The mission of the Georgia National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams always has been to help Afghans build a more secure society by improving food security. However over the teams’ past two deployments the methods for completing that mission have changed.  Continue

Columns is produced by the University of Georgia | Division of Marketing & Communications | Feedback