Bacterial Cell Research to Advance with $1.2 million National Science Foundation Award to Rutgers–Camden Biology Professor

By Ed Moorhouse

Eric Klein, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers University–Camden, is the recipient of a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. The five-year grant totaling $1.2 million will fund Klein’s research on the mysterious properties of a bacterial species known as Caulobacter crescentus.

Eric Klein is the recipient of a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

Eric Klein is the recipient of a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports junior faculty members who “exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations,” according to the National Science Foundation.

This is the second federal research grant awarded to a Rutgers–Camden faculty member to exceed $1 million. Bill Whitlow, a professor of psychology, received a five-year award from the National Institutes of Health in 2005 to support the Science Preparation Alliance of Rutgers and Camden (SPARC) program, designed to enhance science education for high school students in Camden.

“This award is very important to me and will allow me to move this significant research forward,” Klein says.

Caulobacter crescentus is a type of bacteria widely found in fresh water lakes and streams and is a model organism for studying asymmetric cell division and cell shape. For his research, Klein will be investigating one unusual characteristic of the organism: a stalk structure that protrudes from one end. The purpose of this distinctive stalk has stumped scientists for decades.

“If you look at the stalk under a microscope, it essentially looks like someone grabbed onto the end of the cell and just stretched it out,” Klein says. “The membrane and the cell wall look continuous.”

However, the stalk seems to operate under a different set of rules than the rest of the cell.

“If you destroyed the cell wall of E. coli, for instance, it turns into a big sphere because the cell wall is what gives the cell its shape,” Klein explains. “But with Caulobacter, the cell body will do that while the stalk looks unaffected. You’re basically left with these lollipops.”

That leaves researchers to believe that there is something different about the stalk in terms of chemical composition, or a different arrangement of those components that makes it resistant to enzymatic degradation. The answers are shrouded in mystery.

It raises interesting questions about the mechanisms underlying the stalk formation and the evolution and function of bacterial shape and compartmentalization. Klein says researchers have hypothesized that the stalk is a nutrient antenna, based on evidence that it elongates when the organism is starved of phosphate.

Prof. Eric Klein works in his lab.

Prof. Eric Klein works in his lab.

“The fact that bacteria evolved to take a specific shape must mean that they take the shape for a reason,” Klein says. “Given the fact that there seems to be a difference between the cell wall arrangement of the stalk and the cell body, it implies that there is a different mode of growth that we haven’t seen before. Any insight we can gain into the mechanism of how it elongates would be pretty significant.”

It could also impact similar research on other organisms.

“Even if we understand how a mechanism works in Caulobacter, it doesn’t mean you would then understand how it works in other species, but you can use the same approaches and rationale to work through it,” Klein says. “Hopefully, this research provides the foundation that can be applied to other organisms.”

Klein hopes to make a discovery that will shed some light on the unknown, and he’ll do it with the help of undergraduate and graduate students at Rutgers University–Camden, in addition to students at the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden. The LEAP students will work under the tutelage of Rutgers–Camden students on lab experiments related to the research.

“There is a strong emphasis on an educational component through this grant, which will allow students to gain hands-on research experience at Rutgers–Camden,” Klein says.

The students will be using state-of-the-art gene sequencing technology to study mutations leading to stalk elongation defects. The new technology was purchased last year using funding from the Higher Education Equipment Leasing Fund earmarked for science research equipment.

“It’s something you can easily teach high school and college students, and we are developing wet lab components to complement the bioinformatics,” Klein says. “It’s going to provide students with an in-depth research experience, and our approach is very multidisciplinary. It will be a nice way to bring different groups together to collaborate.”

A Cherry Hill resident, Klein earned bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and chemical engineering and his doctoral degree in pharmacology from the University of Pennsylvania.

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