An interview with Dr Nick Watefield

October 2020

Dr Nick Waterfield is a Reader in the department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Warwick Medical School and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview he tells us more about why understanding how pathogens jump species barriers to infect humans and livestock is important to microbiology.

Nick Waterfield
© Nick Waterfield

Tell us more about your research.

My career in microbiology started off doing an Applied Biology degree at the University of Bath. It became rapidly clear to me that my interests lay in understanding the prokaryotic world. However, I have always had a desire not only to understand the life processes of bacteria at a molecular level, but to put that knowledge to use in a more applied way.

I moved to Cambridge University where I did a PhD developing expression systems in Lactococcus, which are food grade bacteria ideal for developing mucosal vaccines. After this I returned to the University of Bath to do postgraduate work on the bioluminescent insect pathogen Photorhabdus. More specifically, I looked at insecticidal toxins that could be re-purposed for crop protection. This strongly stimulated my interest in host-pathogen interactions, particularly how insect pathogens can evolve into human pathogens.

Since relocating to Warwick University, I have been able to pursue research into emerging pathogenic strains of Photorhabdus which can infect people as well as insects. I have also expanded my interests, investigating a unique strain of Bacillus cereus that can cause an anthrax-like illness. Comparing how the Gram-negative Photorhabdus and Gram-positive Bacillus strains have both jumped the host barrier gives me insight into how the evolution of bacterial disease can work.

Why is your research important?

With human activity continuing to encroach on the natural world, the risk of ubiquitous insect pathogens jumping species barriers to infect people and livestock needs to be taken seriously. Thus, understanding the speed and ease by which this can occur is important if we are to better combat future emerging threats such as these.

In addition, the insidious potential threat of terrorist organizations repurposing certain emerging pathogens (e.g. anthrax-cross over strains) as biological weapons, should not be ignored. Finally, insect pathogens are an excellent source of protein and small molecule toxins and antibiotics that can be exploited for the betterment of humankind.

What are the challenges you face in your work and how do you try to overcome them?

I believe the major challenge in molecular microbiology research today is the cost of cutting-edge experiments and the ever pressing need to obtain funding to pay for these from an ever-decreasing pool of available money. From a practical perspective, ensuring good biological safety when working with potentially dangerous pathogens is, of course, paramount.

Why is it important to be a member of an organisation like the Microbiology Society?

The increasing need for multidisciplinary approaches to answer many of the very complex questions in modern microbiology requires a collegiate network of researchers receptive to collaboration. The Microbiology Society provides an essential vehicle for identifying and maintaining networks such as these, especially through the well-attended annual meetings. It has been my pleasure to serve twice on the prokaryotic division committee, which has given me a sound appreciation of the importance and issues involved in organizing the annual meetings. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested.

Why does microbiology matter?

Microbes are the fundamental foundation for all higher forms of life on the planet. If we ignore them, we do so at our future peril. Furthermore, bacteria, yeasts and fungi are nature’s natural medicinal chemists and nanoscale engineers. Discovery and exploitation of secondary metabolite pathways, novel enzymes, and more recently, the amazing molecular machines they produce, hold boundless promise for new tools to tackle some of the toughest problems humankind will face.

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].