Dr. John Archibald

Dr. John Archibald

Dr. John Archibald

Inflammation, Infection & Immunity, Molly Appeal

Gene jumping in microbes:
Dr. John Archibald explores how microbes adapt to survive

Even though they are invisible to the naked eye, microbes are smart. For example, many are able to protect themselves from threats – such as antibiotics – by grabbing genes from other nearby organisms so they can become resistant to drugs. Scientists call this "lateral gene transfer".

“When you try to kill microbes, it forces them to adapt," says Dr. John Archibald, a professor in the department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at Dalhousie Medical School. "Gene transfer is a process that microbes have developed over the eons – it helps them to stay ahead of threats in the environment."

These days those threats include the increasingly vast array of antimicrobial compounds that humans have developed, over-use of which drives the microbes to mutate even faster.

As Dr. Archibald notes, microbes are very resourceful. "One species of microbe will grab a gene from a completely unrelated species... so you can have a fungus acquiring a gene from a bacterium."

Lateral gene transfer is rampant in the human gut, he adds, given the vast numbers and variety of microbes in residence there.

Dr. Archibald and his team are studying the nuts and bolts of the gene transfer process – not just in bacteria but in more complex organisms such as fungi and parasites, which are less understood but still cause many problems. This involves analyzing massive amounts of microbial DNA sequence data using computers in order to pinpoint the gene transfers and shed some light on potentially more effective approaches to treating infections.

The work of Dr. Archibald and his collaborators will benefit tremendously from the new Training Program in Genome Informatics, to be funded in part by Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation's 2018-19 Fall Molly Appeal.

"Dalhousie is a recognized international leader in the development and application of computational methods for analyzing genetic data," notes Dr. Archibald, "but we need more people doing this work. The volume of data being generated outstrips our ability to analyze it. We're looking forward to training the next generation of young scientists who will develop expertise in both biology and informatics."

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