Meet the 2023 Fleming Prize winner, Dr Tanmay Bharat

19 April 2023

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Each year, the Microbiology Society awards the Fleming Prize to an individual who has made a distinct contribution to microbiology early in their career.

Ahead of the Fleming Prize Lecture, ECM Forum Executive Committee member, Kelly Capper-Parkin interviewed Dr Tanmay Bharat to learn more about his career and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

Firstly, congratulations on your win! How did you feel when you found out you were this year’s winner of the Fleming Prize?

I was incredibly honoured, and felt very grateful to my lab and everyone who has contributed to the research over the years. I’m very happy to be part of this group of winners, people I really admire whose research I have followed for many years, including several of my colleagues and collaborators. I’m very grateful to the Society.

How would you summarise your research to a member of the public?

We develop methods to study molecules on the surface of prokaryotic cells at the atomic level. Bacteria and archaea have cell surface molecules which allow them to interact with their immediate environment. This allows them to form symbiotic relationships, multicellular assemblies including biofilms, or environmental microbiomes. We develop and apply electron tomography techniques for our work. At the atomic and molecular level, we seek to understand fundamental mechanisms of how processes such as cellular recognition and cell-cell interactions occur. We find this incredibly exciting and think it is a unique chance to learn some really cool, new biology, never seen before.

How has being a member of the Microbiology Society supported your career so far?

The membership of the Microbiology Society is obviously its strength, as it is for any learned society. Being part of this group gives you access to expertise in the microbiology field, it also gives you access to lots of colleagues and collaborators – because you can’t do everything alone, you always need help from people. The conferences organised by the Society are excellent and several of my lab members have benefitted from them. They have attended and received lots of feedback on their posters, and this has helped them to improve their own research. And of course, getting this prize puts our research in the spotlight, which is great because one of the areas that we work on is related to prokaryotic surface layers, which is not so fashionable these days. I'm hoping this will popularise it a bit more.

Are you excited to present your work at Annual Conference as one of the prize lectures?

Absolutely. Usually the kinds of conferences I get invited to are technical conferences in electron microscopy or electron tomography, so having the opportunity to present in front of colleagues from the microbiology field is fantastic for me because I'm not a classically trained microbiologist. It is a chance to get a different perspective on our research. I'm really excited.

What inspired you to pursue your career in scientific research?

I've always been interested in science, but I've had to deal with bacterial biofilm infections from an early age; I've had bacterial bone infections at several points in my life. Bacterial biofilms are a problem I’ve always wanted to work on. That was the main driving force for me to join this field and is why I'm using structural studies to study this important problem. Of course, as with all research, we discovered new things as we went along and opened up new avenues.

No career in research is without its challenges. What are some of the challenges that you've faced and what advice would you give to early career researchers who may face these same challenges in the future?

Well, from a personal perspective, the one challenge I really faced when I started my laboratory is that I developed a bacterial bone infection in my leg. This went undiagnosed for a long time, but the excellent Oxford bone infection team detected it correctly, and treated me surgically. That was a difficult time personally – to manage the new laboratory whilst having meetings from the hospital bed and those kinds of things. I’m amazed everyone didn’t just quit due to having an absent PI!

From a career perspective relevant for younger researchers, I would like to highlight the area we have now begun working on related to surface layers of bacteria and archaea. As I said, it is not a very fashionable area of research currently, so it was very difficult to obtain funding to do this research. My advice to early career researchers that face the same challenge is to just carry on regardless and you'll always find a solution if you believe that it's important enough. You will find someone who will support you, so don't lose heart is what I would say and keep moving forward!

The Fleming Prize recognizes the work of an early career researcher – what's been your favourite moment of your career so far?

Well, it's very hard to pick one. I think when someone in the lab has a Eureka moment in a challenging project, leading to a breakthrough, it’s very satisfying. These breakthroughs bring with them a lot of motivation, they add enthusiasm, and often promote future ideas and work at a completely different level. These moments are my favourites!

What are you looking forward to most as your career continues?

I think there's a whole world out there of things to discover; there are countless things to learn about how cell surface molecules help shape multicellular communities like biofilms or microbiomes, and to uncover about how bacterial cell surfaces are arranged at the atomic level. I think this is what I'm most looking forward to. When the technology catches up with the biological questions, then we can actually answer some of the things that have puzzled us for a long time. I hope that in the near future, we will be able to uncover some fundamental, governing mechanisms in biology, which will of course lead to new ideas and research in the future. Hopefully there’s lots of exciting times ahead.

If you had an unlimited budget, what project or set of experiments would you spend some of your time researching?

First, I would try to get lots of microscope time, because the microscope technology evolves quickly and we are always in a race to get funding together to buy the next microscope. So, if I had unlimited funding, I would invest in the best possible machines and the fastest computers to analyse the data that comes out. Even more important than kit is investing in the best people, because they drive the science, and often we run out of resources (money and space) to host the best scientists in our group.

Do you have a favourite paper that you have published, one that you are particularly proud of or that was pivotal to your career?

I think we've had several important papers and it's very hard to list one of them because everything shapes our current research. From the microbiology side, I think the paper that I would single out is the discovery of phage liquid crystalline droplets that surround bacterial cells. There is a prophage called Pf4, harboured by Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is overexpressed in biofilms. We discovered that these long, filamentous phage molecules form liquid crystals which encapsulate bacteria and protect them from antibiotics, forming kind of like a force field around them. I’m very proud of this paper as it had one of these Eureka moments, which definitely was not something we expected to see. It was one of those experiments where you see something under the microscope that immediately explains the mechanism.

What does winning the Fleming Prize mean to you?

The Fleming Prize is a very elite prize, there have been a lot of famous people who have received this prize in the past whose research I actively follow: Tracy Palmer, Nicola Stanley-Wall, Sarah Coulthurst, Edze Westra and many others. It validates that what we are doing in the laboratory actually matters. I am proud to receive the prize, of course, but I am also delighted for our entire lab. My name is there on the website, but the recognition definitely has to be shared with everyone who has contributed to the work, which is the lab.

Image: MRC LMB.