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Elizabeth Shank


Assistant Professor

Contact Information

Office: 4157 Genome Sciences Building
Email: eshank[at]unc.edu
Office Phone: 919-962-4459

Shank Lab Website

Research Description

At a Glance:

  • Microbial interspecies interactions
  • Bacterial development and heterogeneity
  • Chemical signaling and metabolite production
  • Microbial ecology and soil communities

Synopsis:

My laboratory studies chemically mediated interactions between microbes. Chemical signaling is the foundation of life. The ability of organisms to interact with each other and their environment requires them to sense external molecules as well as respond to them. After billions of years of evolution, microbes have attained an exquisite mastery of this chemistry. They can synthesize and react to a multitude of structurally complex small molecules. Amazingly, although many microbial metabolites are used extensively as human therapeutics, little is known about the natural functions of these molecules. The hypothesis underlying my work is that, in the natural world, microbial metabolites are important drivers of both the metabolism and differentiation of neighboring microbes, and thus contribute to the stability and function of complex microbial communities.

We explore the mechanisms and molecules that microbes use to influence the physiology and behavior of their microbial neighbors using genetics, microscopy, chemical imaging, and next generation sequencing. By iteratively exploring microbial interactions both in natural environments and in artificial microcosms in the laboratory, we will gain insights into microbial ecology and the role of secreted metabolites in shaping microbial communities.  In addition, we seek to identify novel bioactive compounds to act as potential therapeutics or as chemical tools to manipulate bacterial behavior.

Induction of biofilm matrix expression in B. subtilis colonies was visualized using fluorescence (green colonies). This allowed nearby soil organisms that elicited this effect to be isolated and characterized.

Current lab projects are focused on the interactions of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis with microbes from its natural habitat, the soil. The molecular genetics, cell biology, and physiology of B. subtilis have been extensively studied, providing us with a range of molecular tools with which to manipulate and monitor its behavior. One of the well-characterized features of B. subtilis is its development into transcriptionally distinct cells types, such as swimming cells, biofilm matrix-producing cells, and sporulating cells. These cell types provide read-outs of changes in the physiology of B. subtilis, and can be monitored to illuminate how B. subtilis responds to compounds produced by other microbes. The rich genetic tools available in B. subtilis combined with its cellular heterogeneitry make it an ideal system in which to investigate chemical interactions with other microbes that may be relevant in its natural lifestyle.