Ramona Neunuebel, assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Delaware, has won a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award to support her research on the survival strategies of bacteria.
With the five-year, $750,498 grant, NSF recognizes the significant potential of Neunuebel’s work, which focuses on how Legionella pneumophila bacteria elude and manipulate the defense systems of the host cells they target and infiltrate.
The Legionella bacterium is named for a 1976 outbreak of respiratory disease that it caused during an American Legion convention in Philadelphia. The bacterium lends itself well to Neunuebel’s research questions because it does extraordinary things to thrive and multiply once it enters a cell.
Amoebas have been a “training ground for microbial pathogens” ever since they started interacting with bacteria billions of years ago, Neunuebel said. When Legionella meets an amoeba, for example, the amoeba wraps itself around the bacterium and starts a process to degrade and ultimately kill the intruder. But this bacterium has other plans. Once engulfed by the host cell, it remodels the membrane of what was meant to be a death chamber into a separate cocoon-like place where it not only escapes certain death but is able to multiply.