An interview with Professor Simon Foster

January 2020

Simon Foster is a Professor of Molecular Microbiology and the Faculty Director of Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield. In this interview, he tells us more about how his lab works to understand Staphylococcus aureus as an antimicrobial-resistant pathogen, phagocyte interactions and how this research has led to drive the development of a vaccine.

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Why does microbiology matter?

Microbiologists are explorers in the jungle of life, albeit at a rather small length scale. The subject stands at the nexus of so many grand challenges that have faced humanity over the generations, and will continue to do so into the future. A prime example is the development of vaccines and antibiotics that have saved countless lives and are cornerstones of modern, human healthcare. However, microbiology is also the lens through which we can address the most existential of intellectual challenges as to what underpins the emergent behaviour that is life itself. Microbiology matters as, despite huge advances, we still know little of how micro-organisms function, as individuals, communities and with other organisms. Combining this with the continued spectre of antimicrobial resistance makes for a potent cocktail of need for increased understanding.

Tell us more about your research.

My lab mostly works on Gram-positive bacteria and in particular Staphylococcus aureus, an antimicrobial-resistant pathogen. This allows me to carry out fundamental studies on structure and growth, through to pathogenesis and the development of novel control regimes.  

We take a fundamental approach to determine the architecture of bacteria and how this permits growth and division.This is set within the context of understanding how important antibiotics inhibit these processes. We have worked with scientists across many disciplines, in particular physicists, applying a range of microscopy techniques with astonishing levels of resolution. This has helped reveal new information and insights previously hidden. The long-term aim is to be able to understand the basic principles of life, set within the constraints of the physical laws that govern all our existence. It’s a lofty and far-off goal, but this is a clear ambition that microbiology can address.  

Why does understanding basic microbiology matter in vaccine development?

I have also been lucky to be able to take some of our fundamental findings and use these to drive the development of a vaccine against S. aureus. At this moment it seems like success is still distant but, in the process, we have learnt so much about S. aureus as a pathogen. This includes phagocyte interactions, population bottlenecks and even microbial crowdsourcing, which perhaps explains how humans ever get infected with S. aureus at all. For me, this is a prime example of why microbiology matters, as it is only through the increased understanding of the correlates of disease, that we can identify the correlates of protection, and use these to design more appropriate interventions.
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