Fighting bacterial infections

28 September 2021

How can we be better positioned in the fight against infections caused by bacteria? This is one of the focal points for PhD Student Thorbjørn Vincent Sønderby’s studies.

When proteins misfold, they often have a tendency to aggregate into large and very stable structures known as amyloids. This phenomenon is often related to human diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. However, in recent years researchers have learned that many organisms can form amyloids ‘deliberately’ and use them for functional purposes.

Many bacteria can cluster in biofilm (bacterial communities), which stick to non-biological surfaces and over time can develop into an infection. Biofilm-related infection is a well-known complication when for example a hip implant or a pacemaker is implanted in the human body. The biofilm protects the bacteria, which are clustered in the so-called functional bacterial amyloids (FuBA). The high stability of FuBA increases the protective properties of the biofilm which can withstand harsh conditions like antibiotics.

‘It is difficult to treat infections when bacteria have formed amyloid-protected biofilm. I am looking into how the amyloids are structured to find out how we can prevent them from developing. By targeting the amyloids in biofilms, we may be able to treat infections more efficiently’, says Thorbjørn Vincent Sønderby.

Travelled to work with the best

Because of the clustering, it is difficult to determine the structure of the amyloids, since most techniques require proteins to be soluble in water. However, one specific technique, Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy, is ideal for this purpose, and some of the experts in the field are based at the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing. Thorbjørn Vincent Sønderby’s Chinese co-supervisor is one of them.

‘My Chinese supervisor, Professor Chen Wang, has spent 20 years refining this technique, and the scientists at the centre in Beijing are among the best in the world. It was a great opportunity for me to spend time there, get assistance and discuss my results with my supervisor and the other students in his research group’, says Thorbjørn Vincent Sønderby, who spent three months in China before his plans were impacted by Covid-19.

Discovering the world of nanoscience

Thorbjørn Vincent Sønderby will finish his PhD project in the spring of 2022, and back home at Aarhus University he continues his research into functional bacterial amyloids as a member of Professor Daniel Otzen’s research group.

‘It is like being an explorer in a modern age. We have explored most places on Earth, but when we look at things from a nanoperspective, many things are unexplored. The idea of being the first person in the whole world to learn how a certain protein is structured is super cool. That is what drives me’, says Thorbjørn Vincent Sønderby.