The researcher who listens to bacteria talking
Name: Debra Milton
Debra Milton loves bacteria and listening to how they talk with each other. She is one of the top researchers in the vital research field of infectious diseases.
“Bacteria are complex; they do so much and they are a requirement for all life! Without bacteria’s recycling of nitrogen gas, we wouldn’t survive more than a week. Just a few grams of bacteria can produce the energy of a small battery. Bacteria also have, like mankind, a nerve system that communicates,” says Debra Milton enthusiastically in Swedish with a clear American accent.
Most people associate bacteria with illness, but bacteria can do so much more. They have both good and bad sides and are of great interest to the biotech industry.
“For example, they can be used in environmental conservation and in forestry and agriculture. Plastics can be developed so that bacteria cannot attach to them, which means that the risk of infection disappears with the use of catheters in healthcare, for example, or paints to which mildew and other microorganisms cannot attach,”
explains Debra Milton.
She herself studies how the Vibrio anguillarum bacterium communicates, how it acts, survives and causes disease in fish.
“I work with a marine bacterium that is very important to the fishing industry. It causes a disease that can deplete a fish-breeding station in five or six days. The reason it goes so quickly is that the bacteria enter the bloodstream directly. We try to understand what the bacteria do when they infect fish and how they affect the marine environment.
For bacteria to perform certain activies, there must be a large number of them and it is here that this language, the signals come in.
“They are gathered under something that could be compared to a party tent, a biological film, that protects them from being eaten up by other organisms, from desiccation, antibiotics and the immune systems of other organisms and other hazards,” explains Debra.“Within the group, the bacteria send out a signal, a chemical, that is taken up by others.”
“It’s party time, let’s cause a disease! That’s what a call to battle could sound like,” says Milton.
“The bacteria use these languages or rather the signals to attract or repel other bacteria.”
Debra Milton and many other researchers hope to find a way to block or break down the signal molecules so that they are not transmitted or received by other bacteria. That way, pharmaceuticals could be developed against infectious diseases that could replace antibiotics.
Her own research is focused on how Vibrio anguillarum, related to the cholera bacterium, creates a biofilm on fish scales, but her research is also relevant to human infectious diseases.
“People who eat raw fish or shellfish can be afflicted by an intestinal disease caused by vibrio bacteria. Last summer, when the sea water was unusually warm, several other kinds of illnesses showed up, and some of them were caused by bathing with open wounds that were infected by vibrio bacteria.”
Debra Milton belongs to the group of Umeå researchers, who were granted a total of SEK 77.5 million by the Swedish Research Council to build up the country’s only laboratory in molecular infection medicine.
Name: Debra Milton
Researcher she admires: Barbara McClintok
Favourite place: The middle of the forest
Best record: Guy Clark "Keepers"
Likes to eat: Fruit and vegetables