An interview with Dr Prateek Sharma

December 2020

Dr Prateek Sharma is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, UK, and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview, he tells us more about his research in the field of genetics, why he thinks this is important to microbiology, and what it is like to be a member of the Microbiology Society. 

Prateek Sharma
© Prateek Sharma

Tell us more about your research.

I am interested in bacterial genetics, specifically transcription. Transcription is an important stage for regulation of gene expression. We are currently investigating how bacteria defend themselves against antibiotics by changing transcription regulation. This defence mechanism (i.e., the multiple antibiotic resistance response) can cause major problems in our society. A technique called ChIP-seq has helped us to find multiple target genes in E. coli where a protein called MarA (the multiple antibiotic resistance activator) binds. Our analysis of MarA binding sites has already revealed two novel mechanisms of resistance to tetracyclines and quinolones (Sharma et al., 2017). Briefly, MarA upregulates genes that are involved in lipid trafficking and DNA repair. This regulation reduces antibiotic entry and quinolone-induced DNA damage. Now we moved our focus to other genes targeted by MarA. We hypothesise that these genes might have a role in formation of persister cells. Our goal is to find out how clever bacteria can be in protecting themselves. This will help us to understand of what to do better in terms of treating the diseases caused by drug-resistant pathogens. 

Why is it important to understand the role of genetics in microbiology?

Genetic variation can help microbes or can be harmful. How do bacteria generate the genetic variation that they need to evolve? From where and how do bacterial pathogens obtain virulence genes? It’s really fascinating. To better understand bacterial genes and genomes we have to study their genetics. Genetics helps us to target pathogens with effective drugs in cases of disease. In addition, biotechnologists can improve yields of recombinant proteins by genetic manipulation. In the current pandemic, genetics in microbiology is helping us to develop and produce vaccines. So, in short, genetics in microbiology certainly plays a very important role. 

What do you most enjoy about your research? 

I am always asked why I love research and what do I love in research. Research for me is more than just getting experience. There are many reasons for loving research, but the most important of all is to love unexpected things to happen. This forces you to dive deep, process things in a different way, and think critically to solve a particular problem. I am always curious when things don’t happen the way the text book says.  I love microbiological research because it’s fascinating - as humans, we host around 100 trillion bacterial cells - ten times more than our own human cells! Many of these bacteria help us in different ways. However, my approach is to save the beneficial bacteria and destroy or alter the behaviour of the rest that cause problems in our society.    Finally, the most exciting part of our work is sharing the research knowledge gained, via conferences and meetings. These events are very important for networking and to establish fruitful collaborations with world class scientists.  

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

The main challenge in our work is the paperwork. Starting from detailing what’s ethical, safe and healthy, through to ordering reagents for experiments is very time consuming. It can be 
frustrating when you are desperate to get results. Another challenge is when some experiments give you unexpected results or when an experiment that usually work suddenly doesn’t! In such cases, you have to rethink and try again until the reason for that unexpected result is understood.  

What is your involvement in the Microbiology Society?

The Microbiology Society is a great community that connects individual microbiology researchers to a big cloud of other scientists in the same field. I have been an active member of the Microbiology Society since 2013. I participate in most of the society events and frequently share my research at many of these meetings.  I am also waiting to get onto the ECM forum committee as soon as a place is vacant. I also would like to be a part of the annual conference organisation committee that will help me further boost my skills. I have also heard that there are many opportunities for some members to advocate for scientific policies - I hope to learn about these too. 

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

The Microbiology Society is one of the largest microbiology societies in the world. The Microbiology Society or similar organisation plays an important role for anyone who is pursuing their research in microbiology. The society helps you to network with the likeminded people, and you are treated not just like an individual but as a whole team, which helps you make advancements of microbiology. The society meeting helps you to showcase your own research to scientists across the globe, and can provide you funding for important training and meetings. Moreover, the prize nominations provided by the society are an excellent motivation for carrying out high quality research.  

Why does microbiology matter?

The simple answer is that we can't live without microbes; we depend on them directly or indirectly. The world would become uninhabitable without them. However, some microbes can be pathogenic and that's where we as humans have to have curiosity to struggle and solve problems. Hence, microbiology is the answer to help society and make the world a better place.