Interview: ‘I will always have a soft spot for bacteria’

This is an interview with a PhD student of the Disease Intervention Strategies projects in a series of background articles. Keep following this website for the next interview in this series.

Interview with Eveline Ultee, PhD student of the project Morphological plasticity of bacteria to stressful conditions at Leiden University.

Understanding how bacteria adapt in order to survive is fundamentally interesting and can potentially help us to understand bacterial infections, says Eveline Ultee who researched how bacteria change their shape.

When I started my PhD research in 2016, I was drawn by the combination of state-of-the-art microscopy tools and the subject matter of how bacteria change their shape. And in general I have always wanted to know more about how biology works.

Now, four years later, I have finished my PhD research. It has been fantastic to learn so much and to work with so many great colleagues. And the research itself was extremely interesting: under stress, bacteria can get rid of their cell wall in order to survive. How are they able to do that?

A lot of findings really surprised us. Firstly, we looked at the cell wall itself and found that it is more complex than we thought. It has multiple layers. Secondly, we discovered that a certain protein plays a major role in bacteria when they change shape. Once we knocked out the gene encoding for that protein, the bacterium could no longer shed its cell wall.

My research was on a fundamental level, so it cannot be applied directly to medical studies. But a better understanding of bacteria will help research into bacterial infections like tuberculosis. I would perhaps like to get involved in this; we will see what the future brings. One thing is for sure: I will always have a soft spot for wall-less bacteria.

PhD project: Morphological plasticity of bacteria to stressful conditions.