New Assistant Professor: N. Luisa Hiller, Ph.D. -Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

New Assistant Professor: N. Luisa Hiller, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Appointment, Center for Genomic Sciences, Allegheny-Singer Research Institute
Ph.D. in Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis, Northwestern University Medical School

If you think you have done it all on your own, think again! Your body has ten times more bacterial cells than human ones. Many bacteria work to keep you in good health; however, there are also many bacteria that you do not want to meet in a dark alley. What mechanisms determine if they are friend or foe?

Over the past decade, our knowledge of bacteria has increased dramatically. They are responsible for both acute and chronic infections. They can organize into complex structured communities (biofilms), where they communicate and coordinate across cells. Different strains from the same species can have very diverse genomes; and new strains can be generated in the course of a single infection. Different bacterial genotypes and behaviors partially explain how bacteria from the same species can be either beneficial or harmful.

To investigate the diversity and plasticity of bacterial genomes, I study the bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia, which is associated with both acute (meningitis and pneumonia) and chronic disease (ear infections). My goals are to characterize genomic variability within bacterial populations, capture strain evolution during single infections and epidemics, and ultimately correlate individual genes and pathways to the molecular behavior of microbes and their hosts.

My current work addresses the evolution of S. pneumoniae in the post-antibiotic era by analyzing the whole genome sequence of strains isolated over the past century. My group also studies virulence and niche adaptation by identifying and characterizing signal transduction systems used to sense and respond to the surrounding environment. I hope that these studies on the evolution, fitness, and virulence of S. pneumoniae will provide a better understanding of the role of bacteria in human health and disease.

Photo: By Alexander de Ronde for the Department of Biological Sciences