An engineer and a microbiologist from WSU are collaborating to fight bacterial resistance to life-saving antibiotics.
With a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Shira Broschat, professor in electrical engineering and computer science, and Douglas Call, associate professor in veterinary microbiology and pathology, are studying how antibiotic resistance is assembled and disseminated through plasmids.
Plasmids are small segments, usually circles, of DNA. They are independent of chromosomal DNA found in cells, and they are found most often in bacteria. They are a mosaic of segments of genetic elements assembled from various origins through various means.
Most important, plasmids often are the site of genes that code for resistance to antibiotics. And they can flit from one type of bacteria to the next, spreading this resistance as they go.
The mosaic composition of plasmids can readily change over time. Broschat and Call are studying the “rules” by which these changes occur.
 
Engineering’s contribution
“Most engineering research deals with the laws of physics, so I’m used to working with ‘truth,’ ” Broschat said. “Now I’m working with the laws of bacteria, but we don’t know what the laws are — yet.
“It’s going to take collaborations between technology types and microbiologists to figure out what these laws are, and my students and I want to be at the interface where we’re doing something that makes a difference.”
Broschat’s course on concepts in biotechnology teaches her students that the more you know about what biologists do, the better you can do your job as an engineer or computer scientist in the biotechnology industry.
Engineers and computer scientists develop the equipment and software needed by biologists. An early example is development of the microscope and the subsequent discovery of bacteria.
“We need multidisciplinary approaches to solve our most pressing problems,” Broschat said. “So it’s important to prepare our students for the multidisciplinary aspects of engineering.”
 
Multidisciplinary example
Broschat and Call are doing that by example. Also included in their research and grant are WSU professor Thomas Besser and University of Idaho professor Eva Top.
“Some of the broad implications of this research are to understand why plasmids persist and disseminate among humans and animals,” Call said. “This could have both policy and public health implications.”