Professor Sarah Coulthurst


Professor and Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow

Molecular Microbiology, School of Life Sciences

Portrait photo of Sarah Coulthurst
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Overall my research aims to elucidate how Gram-negative bacterial pathogens are able to successfully cause disease. This should provide both an improved understanding of basic biological processes and, ultimately, contribute to novel therapeutic antimicrobial strategies.

More specifically, I am interested in several inter-linked research areas:

1.  Protein secretion systems

Protein secretion systems are molecular machines used by bacterial cells to translocate specific sets of proteins out of the bacterial cell, either to the extracellular milieu or directly into target cells (eukaryotic or prokaryotic. Secretion systems, and the diverse proteins that they secrete, represent key virulence factors against eukaryotic host organisms. It is increasingly becoming recognised that protein secretion systems can also be important mediators of competition between bacterial cells, with such systems delivering anti-bacterial toxins.

Our largest research area is the Type VI secretion system (T6SS), which is widespread in Gram-negative bacteria and is a complex, dynamic nanomachine which ‘fires’ toxic effector proteins into target cells. These target cells can be eukaryotic host cells, making the T6SS a classical virulence factor. More commonly, however, the target is rival bacterial cells, making the T6SS a key player in inter-bacterial competition and competitive fitness, and therefore an indirect virulence factor. We are interested in the molecular mechanisms and regulation of the T6SS machinery, but also in the identification and characterisation of new anti-bacterial toxins secreted by the system. For many of our studies we use the potent anti-bacterial T6SS of the opportunistic pathogen Serratia marcescens as a model system.

I also have past and present interest in other secretion systems, including the Type II secretion system.

Diagram of Type VI secretion system

2.  Mechanisms of inter-bacterial competition

Competitive interactions between different strains and species of bacteria are widespread and key to defining the polymicrobial communities in which most bacteria exist. A potential pathogen must be able to compete against host microflora, other pathogens and other residents of environmental reservoirs in order to mount a successful infection. Multiple mechanisms of competition exist, both contact-dependent, such as the Type VI secretion system, and contact-independent, such as the production of diffusible secondary metabolites, including classical antibiotics. We are currently interested in the production of antimicrobial secondary metabolites and other inhibitory molecules by strains of Serratia marcescens and related organisms, in addition to our work on the T6SS. More broadly, I have had a long-standing interest in inter-bacterial interactions, including past work on quorum sensing in pathogenic Enterobacteriaceae.

3.  Use of model systems and ‘omic’ approaches to elucidate bacterial-host and inter-bacterial interaction

These include quantitative proteomics, genomics and non-mammalian virulence models.

All together, these areas contribute towards a better understanding of how Gram-negative bacterial pathogens interact with each other and with the host organism to proliferate and cause disease.

We study a number of Gram-negative bacterial pathogens, mostly members of the Enterobacteriaceae, including the human pathogens Serratia marcescensE. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, and the plant pathogens Erwinia spp. Overall, we are a molecular microbiology group, utilising a variety of approaches from genetics, molecular biology and classical microbiology, through to biochemistry, proteomics and cell biology.


Selected Publications

  • Hagan, M., Pankov, G., Gallegos-Monterrosa, R., Williams, D.J., Buchanan, G., Hunter, W.N. & Coulthurst, S.J. (2023). Rhs effectors with NAD(P)+ glycohydrolase activity and their cognate immunity proteins are exchangeable mediators of inter-bacterial competition in Serratia. Nature Communications, 14, 6061.
  • Williams, D.J., Grimont, P.A.D, Cazares, A., Grimont, F., Ageron, E., Pettigrew, K.A., Cazares, D., Njamkepo, E., Weill, F.-X., Heinz, E., Holden, M.T.G., Thomson, N.R.T. & Coulthurst, S.J. (2022). The genus Serratia revisited by genomics. Nature Communications, 13, 5195.
  • Mariano, G., Trunk, K., Williams, D.J., Monlezun, L., Strahl, H., Pitt, S.J. & Coulthurst, S.J. (2019). A family of Type VI secretion system effector proteins that form ion-selective pores. Nature Communications10, 5484. (Research Highlights articleNature Reviews Microbiology 18, 62–63).
  • Trunk, K., Peltier, J., Liu, Y., Dill, B.D., Walker, L., Gow, N.A.R., Stark, M.J.R., Quinn, J., Strahl, H., Trost, M. & Coulthurst, S.J. (2018) The Type VI secretion system deploys anti-fungal effectors against microbial competitors. Nature Microbiology, 3, 920–931. (News and Views articleNature Microbiology 3, 860–861)
  • Ostrowski, A., Cianfanelli, F.R., Porter, M., Mariano, G., Peltier, J., Wong, J., Swedlow, J.R., Trost, M. and Coulthurst, S.J. (2018) Killing with proficiency: integrated post-translational regulation of an offensive Type VI secretion system. PLoS Pathogens14, e1007230.
  • Mariano, M., Monlezun, L. & Coulthurst, S.J. (2018) Dual role for DsbA in attacking and targeted bacterial cells during Type VI secretion system-mediated competition. Cell Reports22, 774–785.
  • Cianfanelli, F.R., Alcoforado Diniz, J., Guo, M., De Cesare, V., Trost, M. & Coulthurst, S.J. (2016) VgrG and PAAR proteins define distinct versions of a functional Type VI secretion system. PLoS Pathogens12, e1005735. 
  • Gerc, A.J., Diepold, A., Trunk, K., Porter, M., Rickman, C., Armitage, J.P., Stanley-Wall, N.R. & Coulthurst, S.J. (2015) Visualization of the Serratia Type VI Secretion System Reveals Unprovoked Attacks and Dynamic Assembly. Cell Reports12, 2131-42.
  • Alcoforado Diniz, J. & Coulthurst, S.J. (2015) Intra-species Competition in Serratia marcescens is Mediated by Type VI-Secreted Rhs Effectors and a Conserved Effector-Associated Accessory Protein. J Bacteriol, 197, 2350-60.
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BS42009 – Advanced Molecular Microbiology – module manager and contributor

BS32004 – Molecular Microbiology - contributor

Honours Year – project supervisor

Integrated MSci – project supervisor

Media availability

I am available for media commentary on my research.

Microbial competition and bacterial protein secretion systems

Contact Corporate Communications for media enquiries.

Areas of expertise

  • Antimicrobial resistance

PhD Projects

Principal supervisor


Award Year
Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 2024
Personal Fellowships / Wellcome Senior Research Fellowship (renewal) 2020
National Sciences Prizes awarded since 1990 / Royal Society of Edinburgh Patrick Neill Medal 2018
National Sciences Prizes awarded since 1990 / The W H Pierce Prize from the Society of Applied Microbiology 2018
National Sciences Prizes awarded since 1990 / The Fleming Prize from the Microbiology Society 2018
Personal Fellowships / Wellcome Senior Research Fellowship 2014
Fellow of Learned Societies and Colleges / Royal Society of Edinburgh, Young Academy 2011
Fellow of Learned Societies and Colleges / Royal Society of Edinburgh, Young Academy 2011