LCS’s Dacheng Ren given prestigious NSF CAREER Award to study biofilms
Dacheng Ren, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering in Syracuse University’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, has been given the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his proposal “Patterned Biofilm Formation by Surface Design: Linking Structure to Physiology and Genetics.” This grant of $400,000 will support Ren’s research over five years to obtain an in-depth, mechanistic understanding of how bacteria attach to surfaces and form sessile multicellular structures (known as biofilms), and how those biofilms develop a resistance to antibiotics at the genetic level.
Biofilms cause serious problems in both medical (chronic infections) and industrial (persistent biofouling) settings. For example, it is well documented that biofilms are involved in 80 percent of bacterial infections in humans. While individual bacterial cells (if not drug-resistant species) can be eliminated by antibiotics, biofilms can tolerate more than 1,000-times-higher doses. Thus, in most cases, the human body cannot tolerate the drug levels required to kill biofilm cells. This leads to chronic infections and development of multidrug resistant bacteria, such as MRSA and “super bugs”.
Unlike with many other diseases where there is increasing progress, infectious diseases due to multidrug resistant bacteria is a deteriorating problem. Bacterial strains are becoming increasingly drug resistant, leading to an increasing threat to public health and economy.
“To address this challenge, it is critical to understand the mechanism of biofilm formation and associated drug resistance,” Ren says. Ren’s research, in this CAREER project, focuses on understanding the effects of biofilm structure and interactions among cell clusters on horizontal gene transfer, which plays a critical role in multidrug resistance development.
In addition to fundamental understanding of biofilm formation and horizontal gene transfer, the findings from this study will also improve the general knowledge of bacterial physiology and help develop more effective methods to control bacterial biofilm formation and drug resistance.
Ren’s work on biofilms began with research for his Ph.D., in which he explored how to control biofilm formation with natural compounds that disrupt bacterial cell-cell signaling. In 2008, Ren was awarded a NSF grant to focus on using surface engineering to obtain biofilms in different patterns. By controlling the morphology of cell clusters, Ren could then focus on understanding the interactions that occur between cell clusters and the connection among biofilm morphology, gene functions and horizontal gene transfer. “I am very excited about this opportunity. By tuning the biofilm morphology, my team and I expect to get new insights into this complex system that cannot be obtained using traditional methods, which lead to significant heterogeneity in biofilm structure,” Ren says.
“It is a great pleasure to see Dacheng receive one of the highest honors awarded to a young faculty member by the U.S. National Science Foundation,” says Radhakrishna Sureshkumar, chair of the Department of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering. “His students and colleagues view him as a passionate researcher, a dedicated teacher and a committed mentor. It is my anticipation that Dr. Ren will build on his successes to emerge as an internationally-recognized leader in microbial engineering and biotechnology. Further, I expect him to play leadership roles in strategic crosscutting efforts that will strengthen the department, college and University.”
The CAREER program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.