Despite their small size, bacterial cells have well-defined temporal and spatial architecture: various protein components localize to specific subcellular sites to execute precise functions during appropriate developmental stages of the bacterial life cycle. The key question is how information encoded in the genomic blueprint is articulated into a complex, three-dimensional structure that changes over time. Multiple regulatory mechanisms—including transcriptional control, signal transduction, proteolysis, and protein-protein interactions—cooperatively implement the genetic program. Caulobacter crescentus has emerged as a prominent model for elucidating the coordination of these regulatory mechanisms. Insights obtained through studies of C. crescentus are being exploited to gain a deeper understanding of how conserved components can behave differently across species. In particular, we are examining conserved proteins in Sinorhizobium meliloti, which is a symbiont that fixes nitrogen for specific legumes. Such investigation will help reveal how genetic divergence leads to distinct physiologies, adapted for different ecological niches.
There are currently two main research projects in the lab:
1) Conserved, localized proteins. In C.crescentus, various regulatory proteins follow defined patterns of subcellular localization that contribute to asymmetric cell morphology: organelles specifically develop at one pole but not the other. These regulatory components are conserved in S. meliloti, a related bacterium that induces nodule formation in plant roots during symbiosis. However, S. meliloti cells are morphologically symmetric compared to C. crescentus. We are examining how these conserved components function in S. meliloti to regulate the assembly of surface organelles and how this regulation affects host-microbe interaction.
2) Microbial engineering. We are developing genetic tools to facilitate the study and modification of different bacterial species. For example, we showed that a taurine-regulated promoter can be used to modulate gene expression in various alphaproteobacteria.