Prestigious UKRI fellowships for Life Sciences Researchers

Published on 19 October 2020

Two life sciences researchers have been awarded Future Leaders Fellowships from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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Dr Megan Bergkessel, Principal Investigator in the Division of Molecular Microbiology, was awarded over £900k to research how some bacteria can survive in inhospitable environments and the potential for new treatments. Dr Adam Fletcher, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr Satpal Virdee's lab in the MRC PPU, will use the award to begin his independent research programme at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) at the University of Glasgow.

Megan Bergkessel

Megan aims to determine how bacteria can survive and grow in inhospitable environments with little food. This research will inform new treatments for chronic bacterial infections, which are difficult to treat and can be fatal. Dr Bergkessel and her team also aim to harness the beneficial activities of bacteria on plants.     

Megan said, “My research seeks to understand how bacteria control their activities under conditions where they lack sufficient food or energy to grow. We think they commonly encounter these kinds of conditions in the natural world, including when they are causing infections. Importantly, they are able to survive exposure to antibiotics whenever they are not growing, because antibiotics target the processes they use to grow and divide.  

“We have discovered some factors in the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa that are important for controlling its non-growing ‘survival’ states. Pseudomonas aeruginosa can cause terrible infections that are difficult to treat with antibiotics, in part because it can enter a protected survival state. Starting with the discoveries we have already made, we can expand our search to identify additional control factors.” 

Megan believes that having a better understanding of bacteria’s non-growing “survival” states could help in devising better strategies for treating chronic infections, and for harnessing beneficial activities of bacteria on plants.

“This award provides long-term support, so we can dedicate the necessary time and effort to really understanding the basic science of bacterial survival, and then also have time to form collaborations and begin to figure out how to apply that understanding toward solving problems like the increase in antibiotic resistance, and the need for alternative strategies to improve crop yields. 

“I feel honoured and lucky to have the opportunity to commit all my time and effort toward making new discoveries in an area of microbiology research that has often been neglected in the past. I am excited to work with lots of other talented researchers within the University of Dundee and at other institutions in the UK. I am looking forward to sharing the new things we learn.” 

Adam Fletcher

In the PPU, Adam works with Dr Satpal Virdee, using Satpal’s activity-based probe technologies to assign E3 ubiquitin ligases to signaling pathways in cells. Equipped with new tools and ideas from his time at the PPU, Adam will return to his studies of host-virus interaction to ask how pathogenic viruses hijack, evade or supress signalling pathways inside cells. Characterizing how viruses negotiate the tricky interior of the cell will suggest new strategies for drugging viruses by targeting the host rather than the virus, an exciting alternative to current antiviral strategies which ultimately fail by selecting for resistance.

Satpal Virdee said, “The award of this Future Leaders Fellowship to Adam is well-deserved. Adam appreciates the importance of interdisciplinary research and is now set to develop an extremely exciting research programme on host-virus biology. I have no doubt we can look forward to some significant discoveries from him”.

Through his fellowship, Adam will also strengthen ties between the CVR and the PPU, saying: “the PPU leads the way in decoding how proteins communicate and transmit messages within our cells. Unfortunately, viruses have already worked out how these pathways work, but this makes them fantastic tools to help us unpick basic cell biology. I believe the CVR and PPU have much to gain from working together”. This would build upon a collaboration already established between the CVR and PPU to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. With his fellowship, Adam will also build a research team and support the next generation of genre-hopping virologists. The fellowship runs for up to seven years. Adam will be advertising for enthusiastic PhD and Postdoc researchers in the near future and anyone interested is encouraged to contact Adam by email.

About the Fellowships

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships support early career researchers and innovators with outstanding potential. More than 101 of the UK’s top researchers from all over the country have received a portion of a £109 million investment as part of UK Research and Innovation’s Future Leaders Fellowships. The investment will propel the next generation of researchers as they lead cutting-edge projects. 

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said, “Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with freedom and support to drive forward transformative new ideas and the opportunity to learn from peers right across the country.  The fellows announced today illustrate how the UK continues to support and attract talented researchers and innovators across every discipline to our universities and businesses, with the potential to deliver change that can be felt across society and the economy." 

Story category Awards and accolades, Research