UCSD Professor Awarded $1.5M Medical Research Grant

UCSD microbiology professor Gürol Süel was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Simons Faculty Scholar last Thursday. He will receive $1.5 million over five years to aid his research on organized bacterial communities called biofilms, which have a high resilience against antibiotics. Süel’s findings suggest that ion channels mediate electrical cell-to-cell signaling, which coordinates the bacteria’s behavior in a process similarly performed by neurons in the brain.

William McGinnis, dean of the Division of Biological Sciences at UCSD, praised Süel for his achievements.

“This is a notable honor for an extraordinary young professor who has made paradigm-shifting discoveries in the past few years,” McGinnis told the UCSD Guardian.

Süel received his Ph.D in molecular biophysics at University of Texas Southwestern while challenging the traditional view of protein function, and was the first to collect direct evidence that molecular randomness can determine cell fate outcomes. He expanded his focus to bacterial biofilms and explained that the grant will allow for further elaboration on past findings.

“This generous funding from the HHMI and Simons Foundation will allow my group to dedicate personnel and resources to pursue new research directions that emerged from our recent discovery of electrical signaling in bacterial communities,” Süel told the Guardian.

The foundation selected 84 faculty scholars from 43 institutions and over 1,400 applicants across America. According to the Faculty Scholars Program, the cumulative five-year grants provide between $600,000 to $1.8 million, which cover costs including partial salary for faculty, salary for lab personnel, equipment, supplies, travel and publications.

For the first time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Simons Foundation collaborated with this program to support the pursuit of scientific discoveries by researchers early in their careers. Süel noted that the award spotlights the achievements of scientists at UCSD and will have a direct impact on students.

“This recognition by the HHMI and Simons Foundation highlights that UCSD has some of the nation’s best scientists and faculty [who] are leaders in their fields,” Süel said. “Students at UCSD will directly benefit by having access to courses and training opportunities with top scientists in the nation.”

At the core of Süel’s studies are molecular and cellular interactions that can create new dynamics in microbial systems and improve bacterial fitness, which involves quantitative biology approaches used in collaboration with mathematical modeling. According to the Süel laboratory, modeling helps to integrate molecular, single cell and population-level scales together in order to uncover fundamental principles of bacterial physiology, and, more recently, bacterial electrophysiology. The discoveries reveal an unexpected functional link between microbiology and neuroscience.

Süel and his team work to examine long-range communication within communities of densely packed bacterial cells. These biofilms can form thin layers, in the same way as tartar on teeth, which are very resistant to chemicals and antibiotics.

Previously, Süel found that biofilms, like human societies, are able to resolve conflicts within their community of bacterial cells. His team discovered that this interaction is made possible by communication over long distances based on electrical signaling.

“In this way, the community of bacteria within biofilms appears to function almost like a ‘microbial brain’,” Süel told UCSD News Center.

Süel earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. After completing his Ph.D. Süel worked in a laboratory at California Institute of Technology. He began his career at UCSD in 2012 and also serves as the associate director of the San Diego Center for Systems Biology, which is part of the National Institutes of Health’s biomedical research efforts.