NEB Podcast Episode #1 -
Interview with Sir Richard Roberts: Microbes and Bacteria,
Your Friendly Neighborhood Watch

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Interviewer: Sriharsa Pradhan, Distinguished Scientist of the Genome Biology Research, New England Biolabs, Inc.
Interviewee: Sir Richard Roberts, Nobel Laureate, Chief Scientific Officer of New England Biolabs, Inc.

I am pleased to introduce Sir Richard Roberts, Nobel Laureate and CSO of New England Biolabs. I met Rich in 1995 in England when I was a graduate student. I then worked with Rich as a postdoc. Rich thinks about microbes differently. He loves them, when not everyone else does. That’s why I wanted to talk to you today.


You presented a talk entitled “Why We Should Love Microbes. So, why should we?

Well one of the main reasons for loving bacteria is that you really can't live without them. I think a lot of people think of bacteria as very bad things. But in fact, if we kill all of the bacteria that live with you, you will die. They are an essential part of our being.

They live with us, they've made us their home, and they don't want anything to happen to their home. And so they go to great lengths to protect us from pathogens and from things that otherwise might kill us. Just imagine, when you buy a home, the first thing you do is put a fence around it. You don't want anything bad to happen. Bacteria feel the same way, they love us and we should love them.


So Rich, what makes presenting this message important to you?

Well I think it's the fact, so many people are scared of bacteria. And they shouldn't be. They should not be scared of bacteria. They've got a bad name because what happened is microbiologist studied bacteria for the longest time only as pathogens. They were looking at all of the bacteria that caused harm for us. And so as a result of that, even biologist often have this wrong view about just what bacteria are and what ones are good and what ones are bad. Fortunately, that's beginning to change within the last few years. But I think it's high time that it did change.

And personally, I've worked on bacteria for most of my scientific life. They're small organisms, they have relatively short DNA, they're easy to work with, and my great hope is that before I die we will actually understand how one of these works.


Twenty years ago, the public view was very different than it was today. How do you think a microbiologist would have felt about bacteria, and really, why did researchers think bacteria were so bad?

Well I think 20 years ago, even most microbiologists were not paying much attention to the good bacteria. They were still pretty heavily focused on all the bad ones. Because there were still some that we didn't know how to deal with, people were very worried about, we were running out of antibiotics, we didn't have the antibiotics we needed in order to protect us from the pathogens. And there was much less appreciation of all of the good bacteria. And there were a few researchers out there working on them. But most researchers didn't.

From the point of view of the general public, they just had this idea that bacteria were bad for you, and they only wanted to kill as many bacteria as they possibly could, hence the introduction of all these antiseptics, putting in antiseptics into soap, disinfecting everything, getting rid of as many bacteria as they could. And it was a very unfortunate time I think for the bacteria, should we say.


Rich, have you always viewed bacteria and microbes in this way? Or is this just a recent revelation?

I would say not so recent a revelation, but certainly when I first got into this field, I felt pretty much the same way that everybody was feeling at the time. That bacteria were pathogens that were interesting and these others didn't seem to be terribly interesting at the time. I was not a bacteriologist, I was not a microbiologist, I was trained as a chemist so I tended to look at things with a chemical perspective.

But as time has gone on, and I've learned more about what is going on, I think I've become, slowly a huge admirer of bacteria. And, of course having worked with them for so long, I recognized their value as research reagents, as topics for research, are because one can do experiments with them. You know if I tried to do experiments with you, you're going to object, you won't like to be part of a study, but bacteria seem not to object. So we can do experiments with them that we otherwise could not do.


You have been spreading the word about bacteria for quite some time now. But when did you first start working in the field of microbiology?

This was actually when I went to be a postdoc. So I started my life as an organic chemist, got my PhD in organic chemistry. And then, I read a book, and the book was called, “The Thread of Life,” by John Kendrew who later went on to win a Nobel prize for the first structure of a protein. And this book was about the origins of molecular biology.

And by the time I read that book, I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't want to be a chemist, I wanted to be a molecular biologist. And so I applied to a lot of labs to try and get a postdoc somewhere interesting. One man took me, a man called Jack Strominger, who at the time was in Wisconsin. But then just before I had to pack up and leave, he wrote to me and said, "Well could you wait, because I'm just moving to Harvard, I've just been made a professor at Harvard." And so quite by chance, I ended up doing my postdoc at Harvard. When I was there, I was working on some small molecules that are involved in synthesizing the wall that sits around bacteria. And that was how I got involved in bacteria in the first place.


That’s very exciting indeed. I understand that there is a lot of things going on in microbiological research. So tell me Rich, what is fascinating you now?

And there is this fascinating stuff that is come into light, then you've probably heard about fecal transplants. So there are some bacterial diseases, clostridium difficile is the one that you hear about all the time. But now most of these bacteria, the clostridium difficile, which you typically pick up if you have a long stay in hospital, they're resistant to most if not all antibiotics. And yet, there is a cure. There is a way of treating this disease, and it's by taking the bacteria that are in normal poop from a healthy individual, taking those bacteria, injecting them either by, well you can take it as a tablet now actually but, getting the bacteria in your gut, and it will kill clostridium difficile.

And this is a vast mixture of bacteria, we don't know exactly what is in that, and we certainly don't know how this works, but it works. And so here is a case where bacteria from a healthy individual, we can see that they clearly kill pathogens. Same is true for MRSA, we recently list this as methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus. This is something you hear a lot about, everybody's scared of staph aureus. We recently found out that there are bacteria living in the nasal passages of healthy individuals, which can kill MRSA. How they do this? We don't know. But that looks pretty interesting to me. I think this is fascinating area to be working in.

And we have this whole thing, that if you look at people who grew up on farms and compare how well they do to people who grew up in the city, in general, they're healthier, they don't have as much asthma. They don't have as many medical problems and the reason is, they're exposed to bacteria, They go out and they play in the poop of cows, they generally get very dirty, they get very exposed to a lot of different bacteria when they're very young. And this is good, on the whole this is very good. Whereas kids in cities don't have that same exposure, they tend not to have the same environment that they live in, and so they don't get all of these bacterial infections that they otherwise might. And this tends not to be so good. And we've now realized that the contents of the microbiome, the contents of the bacteria that live with you, and these get laid down very early. And so these kids who grew up on a farm, they have a much healthier microbiome than you do.

And the thing I find really fascinating is if you look at kids who were born by caesarean section and compare them with kids who were born via the normal vaginal birth, those kids do not do as well. The caesarean section kids have problems. And the doctors have started to recognize this. And so now one of the things that they are doing in many hospitals is to take vaginal swabs and swab it all over a baby that has just been born by a caesarean section. And the hope is that they are going to try to recreate the microbiome, because it's during passage through the birth canal that the babies pickup the bacteria that are going to seed their microbiome and get it started for a healthy life later on. So that this fascinating stuff going on at the moment, we've not been doing this long enough yet to know if it makes a difference, maybe take 10 years if we find out if it makes a difference. But it's reasonable, it's a good hypothesis and we know that statistically, if you're born by caesarean section you're going to have more health problems than if you're born by a normal vaginal birth.

There's a vast scientific literature out there. A good place to go is NCBI, the National Center for Biotechnology Information. And if you go down there, they have a resource called PubMed, which is the access into the world scientific literature on biological topics. And just searching for microbiome, you will find hundreds of references there and you can wander through and pick some. And you can go to the American Society for Microbiology, and they have a website, and they have resources in which will lead into microbiome research and tell you about stuff that is going on.


Considering the current and restricted funding environment, what advice would you offer a microbiologist seeking support for their research?

Well, I think already were seeing it happening. So NIH have been setting aside money for microbiome research, and for studying bacteria, more than they ever did. And so I think this focus on the microbiome and how if we can understand it and understand how it works, how it protects us, and this is going to be very valuable for the future of medicine. And I think you can make a very strong case that we should be studying much more than we are. And that means, not just sequencing their DNA, which is what so many studies are doing, but understanding what that DNA does, what it means, what their genes in the bacterial genome are doing, and how the bacteria are talking to one another, and how they're talking to us.

For instance, we know that in the gut many of the bacteria that are there, communicate with our central nervous system. And they send messages to the brain. We don't always understand how this happens, but isn't that fascinating? Maybe what you eat is going to affect the way you think tomorrow.


That's very interesting indeed. So how do you see the field of microbiology changing in the years to come?

Well I think we're going to gain a growing appreciation of why the microbes are so important for us, and why bacteria are so important. And I think what we will do is we will learn how they manage to protect us from pathogens, from cancer, and from other ailments that head our way. We will learn how they do this and maybe some of the lessons that we learn can be applied to medicine.

For instance, maybe we will find small molecules that they're secreting that will kill pathogens selectively, not all bacteria, just the pathogens. This would be very exciting, would lead to a new age of antibiotics, a new age of chemicals that can be used to protect us.


Thank you Rich for all your time today, and for sharing your knowledge and insight into the world of bacteria and the roles that they play in our society. Once again, thank you very much.

Okay, It's my pleasure, I love them.

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Lydia Morrison
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Lydia is a scientist by training and a communicator by nature, and has a knack for asking one too many questions.

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