New edition of the VIB Times is out! Theme: Microbiology

17 March 2018

But we study microbes because elephants don’t make you sick, nor do they make beer. 

I vividly remember upsetting quite a few people a few years back at a VIB group leader retreat. Along with several other group leaders, I was asked to give a presentation in a session on future trends in science. As expected, the session turned out to be a recital of the obvious, with people predicting more genome sequencing, more big data, more CRISPR/Cas, more single-cell research. The audience was slipping into a deep, possibly irreversible, coma. That was, until I half-jokingly stated that there’s an easy answer for anyone not working in the field of microbiology: simply look at what microbiologists are doing right now to know where other fields will be headed in the coming five years. Coma transformed into fury. Someone stood up and shouted that microbes don’t even have neurons and that it is therefore rather unlikely that they would be good predictors of where the field of neurobiology would head to. Plant scientists, cancer specialists and immunologists nodded enthusiastically.

Even though I was mostly joking, there is some truth to my point. Many new techniques and scientific trends begin with microbes, simply because microbes are such easy, versatile and inexpensive models. Want to sequence or synthesize a complete genome, study how single cells behave in a population, or explore how basic processes work? Better put some microbes under your scope! One glance at the list of microbiologists that have won Nobel Prizes supports my claim: gene regulation, transcription, cell cycle control, telomeres, protein trafficking, and, in the near future, CRISPR/Cas. As Jacques Monod said: what is true for E. coli is true for the elephant!

In addition to being excellent models, microbes are fascinating creatures in their own right. The sheer variety of microbes, and the things they can do, stretches the limits of our imagination. Some grow in extreme conditions at the bottom of oceans, in hot springs or in the very air we breathe. Some have developed metabolic routes to gather energy from sunlight, metal and rocks. Some can divide within a few minutes. Some are key in the production of human foods and beverages, as well as in many industrial processes. Others colonize larger organisms – sometimes as symbionts, sometimes as parasites and pathogens.

It is no wonder then that the VIB Center for Microbiology is doing so well, in terms of both basic research as
well as translational achievements. In this edition of VIBnews, you’ll get to discover a few recent examples
of what the microbiology team is doing – from studying gene regulation, pathogenesis, antibiotics and antibiotic resistance to the microbial ecology of the human gut and industrial fermentations. We highlight some recent papers, the expertise of a new group leader, Jan Michiels, the search for yet another group
leader, and the installation of what must be VIB’s most fun piece of equipment: our new experimental brewery. Cheers to microbes!


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Kevin Verstrepen, Science Director of the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology