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Interview: ‘I value that my research has social relevance’

This is an interview with a PhD student of the Complex Systems & Metagenomics projects in a series of background articles. Keep following this website for the next interview in this series.

Interview with Jesse Kerkvliet of the Gene flow networks in animals, the food chain and the environment project at UMC Utrecht. This project is part of the overarching project DiSSeMINATE – Drivers of Selection and Spread of Mobile Genetic Elements INvolved in Antimicrobial.

Jesse Kerkvliet, a bio-computer scientist, likes working with interesting model systems, but also thinks it’s important his research aims at solving real world problems.

‘If someone asked me at a party what my research was about, I would say that I design software to trace the spread of antibiotic resistant genes. But let’s look at this in a little more detail because there’s more to say of course.

As most people will know, bacteria that are treated with antibiotics can become resistant. The genes that cause this resistance can be part of mobile DNA, located on a plasmid for example. Mobile in this case means that the DNA can be transferred from bacteria to bacteria. In this way, resistance can spread among bacteria, which is how antibiotic resistance becomes a far larger problem. To find a solution, I devise software that looks for this mobile DNA in sample bacterial populations.

As a bio-computer scientist, my interest is in the data analysis of interesting model systems. For example, during my Master’s I analysed mobile DNA in birds. So the possibility of analysing the bacterial data of, for example, all the animals on a given farm, caught my attention. I now analyse the spread of antibiotic resistance throughout this kind of population.

I also value that research like this has social relevance. At the end of the project, the ambition is to trace these resistant genes from their origin to larger populations. For example, a possible hypothesis is that genes like this originate in farm animals, are transferred to the environment, via for example the farmer, sewerage or the wheels of a lorry, and end up in larger human populations. It sounds probable, but we will, of course, have to show that this is actually what happens.’

PhD project: Gene flow networks in animals, the food chain and the environment.