We are pleased to announce the Thomas L. Patterson Graduate Fellowship 2020 and 2021 recipients, Laith Harb from the Lanying Zeng lab, and Justin Boeckman from the Jason Gill lab. The Fellowship is personally funded by Dr. Steffanie Strathdee and Dr. Thomas Patterson to encourage graduate-level phage research at the CPT, and it was first awarded to Adriana Hernandez Morales in 2019.
Laith Harb is a 5th year Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry and Biophysics under the advisement of CPT faculty member Dr. Lanying Zeng. He studies the biological mechanisms guiding cell penetration of single-stranded (ss) RNA bacteriophages. All known ssRNA phages utilize host-encoded dynamic appendages called pili to facilitate penetration of the phage genomic RNA. Many pathogenic bacteria employ various pili to handle important biological functions, such as gene transfer and motility. These processes contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance genes and support persistence in bacterial infections, making them prime targets for therapeutic purposes. Using fluorescence microscopy and genetic techniques, Laith works to discern key mechanistic details describing how dynamic pili promote viral entry into the host cell. Recently, his research uncovered a telling phenomenon associated with ssRNA phage infection: initial penetration of the viral payload causes breakage of host pili. This provides a selective advantage for the infecting phage, suggesting that this phenomenon may be widespread among other pilus-specific phage systems. He aims to further understand how phage-induced disruptions of pili occur, the impact of pilus detachment on the host cell, and ultimately engineer ssRNA phages as novel antimicrobials to specifically target and disrupt host pili in pathogenic bacteria.
Justin Boeckman received his Bachelor of Science Degree in Biological Sciences with an emphasis in Microbiology from the University of California, Davis. After graduating, Justin worked as a Junior Specialist cloning recombinant monoclonal antibodies in the lab of Dr. James Trimmer, UC Davis. In 2016, he joined Dr. Jason Gill’s lab in the Animal Science Department of Texas A&M University. Justin’s PhD research study the role of the gut microbiome in chronic inflammatory diseases and the evaluation of phage for targeted microbiome engineering. The intestinal microbiome plays a key role in the health of our gastrointestinal tract, and the ability to target and selectively reduce members of the intestinal flora linked to various disease states with minimal collateral damage to commensal bacteria could produce positive health outcomes and lessen severity of symptoms. Bacteriophages are an ideal tool for this job given their potent lytic activity and narrow host range. Justin’s research is investigating phages that infect pathogenic E. coli and sulfate-reducing bacteria, which have roles in chronic intestinal inflammation disorders such as ulcerative colitis. Phages isolated as a part of Justin’s research could serve as the basis for a novel treatment option for the alleviation of chronic intestinal inflammatory disorders.