With Researcher Spotlights, 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.
School of Molecular and Cellular Biology
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Dr. Thomas Kehl-Fie is an associate professor of microbiology in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Dr. Kehl-Fie's research is focused on exploring bacterial and antibiotic-resistant infections and gaining a more complete understanding of what is important for pathogens to cause infection and disease. The Kehl-Fie lab is also focused on leveraging interdisciplinary microbiological approaches, biochemical studies, and advanced elemental analysis to understand how nutrient starvation impacts bacterial pathogens during infection and identify new opportunities for therapeutic intervention. In his researcher spotlight, Dr. Kehl-Fie discusses how his research aims to make a positive impact on human health and its ties to the collaborative environment of the Illinois community.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
Microbes are COOL! I’m not sure it is a good story, but since my first general biology class in college, I have always been fascinated by microbes. I was struck by all of the hostile environments that they thrive in as pathogens, in the soil, in the artic, near deep-sea thermal vents, etc, and all of the different things that they can do. These single-celled creatures with genomes a tiny fraction of the size of ours are capable of not only existing, but thriving in environments we struggle in, even with all of our advanced technology. This fascination with microbes, combined with my parallel interest in human health, pulled me to study bacterial pathogenesis.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
The focus on interdisciplinary investigations throughout the university and the support provided by the university for team science provides creates a unique environment where you can focus on asking/answering big questions and follow the science where it takes you, rather than focus only on questions that you personally have the expertise to address. As a result, my research has moved in exciting new directions that I would have never anticipated when I first came to Illinois.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
50+ years ago, with the introduction of antibiotics into clinical use, the threat of bacterial infection was thought to be eliminated. However, we could not have been more wrong. Bacterial infection and antibiotic-resistant infections are now one of the leading threats to human health; and in coming years, deaths from bacterial infections are predicted to outpace those associated with cancer, diabetes, etc. To cope with this threat, we need new therapies/strategies for treating infection; and developing these new therapies/approaches requires a more complete understanding of what is important for pathogens to cause infection and the stresses that they must overcome to cause disease.
Given the direct threat to human health posed by bacterial infections, we tend to focus on how studying bacterial pathogeneses can lead to new therapeutic options. However, biology, and microbes in particular, are excellent at recycling and reusing. What this means is that many of the strategies employed by pathogens to survive the stresses encountered within the host are used by non-pathogenic microbes to survive similar stresses they encounter in the environment. Thus, while we study bacterial pathogenesis in the hopes of directly improving human health, the microbes are simultaneously teaching us lessons in general biology.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities you are particularly excited about right now?
What am I not excited about? This question is a bit like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. The great thing about Illinois is the opportunities the collaborative environment affords researchers to pursue questions that they think are important and excited about.
I am particularly excited that our investigations into how Staphylococcus aureus simultaneously overcomes nutrient metal starvation and oxidative stress produced by immune cells have provided us an opportunity to study metalloproteins and the forces that shape their evolution. Metalloproteins are critical for all forms of life with 50% of all enzymes requiring a metal cofactor for function. We also know that the metal used by a metalloprotein can change over time. However, we don’t know the forces that drive changes in metalloprotein metal utilization or the biological factors that constrain these changes. Given the sheer number of metalloenzymes, as we move towards leveraging microbes to produce valuable compounds, there is a need to understand these factors, as synthetic biochemical pathways are built around incorporating enzymes from distinct organisms.