Jun Prof Alexander Westermann
The group of Alexander Westermann focuses on investigating molecular RNA-based mechanisms that allow infecting pathogens to outcompete the resident microbiota. Their research centers on the identification and functional characterization of noncoding RNA molecules in pathogens, microbiota members and the host, to identify those RNAs that may serve as biomarkers for diagnostics or as therapeutic targets.
Our research and approach
The importance of RNA in maintaining cellular physiology by controlling gene expression in response to intrinsic and external cues has long been underestimated. Now, numerous human diseases have been linked to RNA functioning. Likewise, we now know that bacterial pathogens harness a large suite of noncoding RNA molecules to adapt to environmental stress and to precisely regulate their virulence programs. In an era of antibiotic crisis, it is essential to discover alternative combat strategies against pathogenic bacteria — ideally ones that spare the beneficial microbiota communities. The high specificity of RNA molecules provides great potential for achieving these goals.
Bacterial infections of mammalian hosts are arguably among the most complex biological processes, often comprising a multitude of interacting organisms from different kingdoms. How do bacterial pathogens promote infection and what defense mechanisms do they have to overcome in order to colonize? What molecular mechanisms manifest the protective role of the microbiota against pathogenic attack? And what is the role of noncoding RNAs in host-microbiota-pathogen crosstalk? These and related questions are addressed in our group. Using cutting-edge RNA-sequencing-based techniques, our research centers on the identification and functional characterization of noncoding RNA molecules in the enteric pathogen Salmonella Typhimurium, the important intestinal microbiota member Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, and the human host, to identify those RNAs that may serve as biomarkers for diagnosis or as therapeutic targets in the future. In addition to contributing to the field by the development of novel RNA-seq-based technologies for complex infection settings, we aim to increase the knowledge about functions of regulatory RNA molecules and RNA-binding proteins in bacterial pathogenesis and symbiosis, by gaining biological insights from mechanistic studies.
“Infection is a complex interplay of a pathogen, its host, and the resident microbiota that we can only fully understand – and eventually treat – once we consider the role of each player in this process.”