With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois. For fall 2020, we have expanded the spotlight to focus also on the bright, dedicated graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who make up the next generation of innovators and leaders in our community.
Department of Microbiology
Danielle Campbell is a recent PhD graduate from the Department of Microbiology, in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and was co-advised by Dr. Rachel Whitaker and Dr. Patrick Degnan. In her PhD work, Danielle combined molecular and computational biology to study phages and other mobile genetic elements carried by the prominent human gut symbiont Bacteroides. A paper on this research was recently published in Cell Reports.
Danielle is interested in understanding how mobile genetic elements can have cascading effects on bacterial hosts, the gut microbiome, and human-microbiome interactions. She is currently in the process of transitioning to a postdoctoral research position in the lab of Dr. Megan Baldridge in the Division of Infectious Disease at Washington University in St. Louis's School of Medicine. In her new position, Danielle will continue on these familiar themes, focusing on phages associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
As an undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound, I got involved in research in the lab of Dr. Mark Martin, studying the bacterial predator Bdellovibrio. Bdellovibrio is really cool -- it's a bacterium that hunts and eats other bacteria! Because it kills bacteria and is ultra small, a lot of the same methods we use to study phages also work for Bdellovibrio. In fact, Bdellovibrio was discovered on accident by scientists looking for phages! So, when I got to Illinois for grad school, I was already super interested in bacterial predation, and when I found a lab with a potential phage project, it seemed like the perfect fit. What I didn't anticipate is that my interests would quickly pivot away from "predatory" phages to the more "symbiotic" temperate phages!
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
The Department of Microbiology has been an incredible place to do this work. First, the faculty are super supportive and always happy to have students knocking on their office doors looking for help thinking about their science. But also, our department has a long history of working on mobile genetic elements in Bacteroides hosts, starting with the late Professor Abigail Salyers. Abigail's work is foundational to our current understanding of horizontal gene transfer in the human gut, especially in regards to antibiotic resistance, and of how mobile genetic elements work in general. Abigail cast a big shadow on the field, and it has been an honor to follow in her footsteps. Finally, Illinois benefits from a wealth of incredible gut microbiome research happening across campus. My work has especially benefitted from collaborating with Dr. Jason Ridlon, an expert on bile acid-microbiome interactions, and his graduate student Lindsey Ly. This collaboration lead us to finding that the temperate phage BV01 changes the way its Bacteroides host metabolizes bile acids.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
The gut microbiome is a very hot topic in science and medicine, and there's been growing interest in manipulating our gut microbes to improve human health. While I'm hopeful that we can do that someday, I think my work makes a fair counterpoint: we really understand very little about the "normal" gut microbiome and how it functions at a mechanistic level. And while there's been a lot of research on the gut, the field is still in its infancy -- we have so much to learn before we can start manipulating it! I hope my most recent paper can highlight just how complex the gut system really is, and motivate more research to understand the mechanisms that make it work.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
I hope COVID-19 has highlighted for the world just how important and complex viruses are. I think a big part of why this pandemic has been so severe is because humanity was caught flat-footed. Looking forward, I would like to see more support for "virus hunters," researchers who sample wild viruses in diverse host organisms and study how they work, with the goal of making us more prepared for the next potential pandemic.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
I'm currently working on wrapping up a second project from my PhD, focused on computational prediction and analysis of integrated mobile genetic elements in Bacteroides genomes. We found that these mobile elements are much more diverse than previously thought, and collectively form a continuum of mobile functions, likely the result of variable rates of recombination. Stay tuned -- I hope to have the work published soon!