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 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.
Asma Hatoum-Aslan, PhD
Department of Microbiology
Dr. Asma Hatoum-Aslan is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology. She received her PhD in biochemistry from Cornell University and completed her postdoctoral training at the Rockefeller University. Her research program aims to advance the basic mechanistic knowledge of how bacteria and their viruses (known as phages) interact and explore new paradigms that question fundamental assumptions regarding bacterial immunity. Additionally, basic insights into bacterial immune systems such as CRISPR-Cas and the phage-encoded mechanisms that counter them are synergistically applied to discover and engineer new phages as a basis for alternative treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections. Using Staphylococcus epidermidis and its phages as a model host-virus system, recent research in the Hatoum-Aslan lab has revealed new mechanisms of the CRISPR-Cas10 immune pathway and discovered a novel anti-phage defense system conserved in diverse bacteria. Her team is also developing new phage-based therapeutics with diagnostic capabilities along with mechanisms to deliver them to the site of an infection. Future work will continue to leverage basic findings to develop novel biotechnologies in this area. Dr. Hatoum-Aslan has also been engaged in integrated educational activities that provide research experiences and active learning opportunities for underrepresented groups in STEM disciplines.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
One of the most rewarding aspects of being part of Illinois is the stimulating intellectual environment it provides, and the ample opportunities for collaboration that come with it. Solving the most pressing problems in society will require us to rely more and more on interdisciplinary approaches, and as world leaders in both basic research and engineering, the academic community here, combined with Illinois’ intellectual environment provide a very fertile ground for innovation. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to establish my research program here and looking forward to seeing how it grows in new directions in the years to come.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
My lab is mainly engaged in cutting-edge basic research which seeks to understand how bacteria and their viruses (known as phages) interact with each other at the molecular level. We are specifically interested in understanding how bacterial immune systems defend against phages, and how phages evolve to overcome these defenses. Phages are parasites of bacteria—they attach to a specific host, inject their genetic material, and hijack the cell’s enzymes and energy stores to replicate exponentially in a process that typically causes cell death. In response, bacteria have evolved a diverse array of complex immune systems to fend off invading phages.
Historically, studies of phage-host interactions have formed the foundation for modern molecular biology and inspired transformative technologies that accelerated the pace of early genetics research. The last decade has seen yet another inflection point in our ability to rapidly convert insights from basic research into powerful biotechnological applications that will profoundly impact society. This has been propelled, in part, by the astonishing speed at which our experimental, sequencing, and bioinformatics capabilities have advanced. The quintessential example is the recent discovery of CRISPR-Cas immune systems in bacteria and how basic insights into their mechanisms of action have quickly enabled the development of revolutionary genome editing technologies.
Today, against this backdrop, I believe almost any new breakthrough in our understanding of basic mechanisms that govern phage-host interactions has a great potential to enable new therapies or biotechnological tools and improve our ability to address problems such as the global healthcare crisis incited by the rise in antibiotic resistant bacterial infections. We devote much effort in my lab to discovering and characterizing new bacterial immune systems and exploring new paradigms that question fundamental assumptions regarding bacterial immunity. Another research focus in my lab seeks to harness phages as weapons to combat pathogenic bacteria, an approach known as phage therapy.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
We have several exciting projects ongoing in the lab. One project follows the thread of a new immune system that we discovered in the Staphylococcus species, and our recent efforts have been geared towards uncovering the molecular mechanisms by which it operates. Another project seeks to understand the molecular requirements for host attachment in a unique group of staphylococcal phages with the goal of maximizing their therapeutic potential through genetic engineering. These and other research efforts in my lab are supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award, and a PATH Award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.