Controlling bacteria with mathematical equations

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Allen uses methods from physics to explain results from microbiological experime

Allen uses methods from physics to explain results from microbiological experiments. Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena)

Rosalind Allen is new professor for Theoretical Microbial Ecology

Understanding how bacteria grow, survive or die in different environments can be a real game-changer in the way bacterial infections are dealt with. "It is important to use antibiotics in a smart way, because too many mistreatments can lead to resistance", explains Prof. Rosalind Allen. She has recently been appointed Professor for Theoretical Microbial Ecology at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena and is based with her team within the Cluster of Excellence "Balance of the Microverse". 

Combining methods from physics with microbiology

Prof. Allen joined the University of Jena from the University of Edinburgh. Originally, she studied chemistry at Cambridge University and later became a physicist. Her research is a combination of all her areas of expertise. Prof. Allen uses methods from physics to explain actual findings from microbiological experiments. More precisely, she writes down equations that describe how bacteria grow in different environments and how this affects the impact of antibiotics.

"The simple picture is that antibiotics kill bacteria. But it is actually not that simple", Prof. Allen states. Bacteria grow in totally different environments, like for example the human gut or soil, but also medical implants or catheters. Depending on the environment, however, bacteria grow at different rates. The pace at which bacteria grow affects the way they are inhibited by antibiotics. In conclusion, what might work for killing bacteria in one environment might be totally ineffective in another. Prof. Allen tries to find out how and why that is. By translating the bacterial growth process into mathematical equations, it is possible to learn things that might have been missed from a strictly biological point of view. 

Another benefit from combining biology and physics is that it visualizes complex processes and thus makes them more comparable. The interaction of bacteria with antibiotics for example could have a similar set of equations to the one describing a predator attacking bacteria population. "We aim to find concepts that cut across different systems, that might have been overlooked otherwise", sums up Prof. Allen. The concept of comparing two processes that might seem different at first glance really fits into the Microverse Cluster, which combines different research areas.

Great interdisciplinary opportunities at the Microverse Cluster

"One of my goals is to find a smart way to treat bacterial infections with antibiotics. Right now, there are clinical guidelines on which antibiotic to use with which infection, but they are not always based on detailed understanding of how the bacteria responds to the antibiotic", explains Prof. Allen. To really understand how infections develop, the scientist is looking forward to working together with the clinicians from the Jena University Hospital, also members of the Microverse Cluster. This interaction will highlight the matter from a more practical point of view. Prof. Allen aims to develop detailed models on how bacteria react to a particular kind of treatment. "I am excited to talk with people at the clinic who actually treat patients in order to learn if, from their perspective, the models we created are in fact useful and relevant."

Prof. Allen is also excited about how different species of microbe interact, in soil, oceans, on plants or in human guts. "Jena is a hotbed of expertise about microbial interactions and I want to use mathematical models to predict how these interactions play out for stability of the natural environment, and for human and plant health", she says.

Having someone like Prof. Rosalind Allen in the Microverse Cluster, who writes down equations to describe biological processes, might be a way of linking people together and find new similarities between fields of knowledge.

In addition, Prof. Allen will be contributing to the Microbiology Master’s program at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena by teaching students about modelling in microbiology.

Since moving to Jena, Prof. Allen and her family have had some time to explore the city. With two daughters, one in elementary school and one in the University daycare, the family especially appreciates the Galaxsea swimming pool and the beautiful nature surrounding Jena.

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