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Understanding and Engineering Microbes to Improve Human Health: A Conversation with Arthur Prindle

The NSF-Simons National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology is composed of investigators at the forefront of innovative research at the interface of mathematics and biology. Each member of the NSF-Simons NITMB brings a unique perspective that is vital for achieving the NITMB’s mission to develop new mathematics and inspire biological discovery. In order to highlight the diversity of expertise present, and the valuable contributions of NITMB members, the NITMB will be sharing insight into one of our members every month. 

Arthur Prindle, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, Northwestern University 

Arthur Prindle is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, Chemical and Biological Engineering, and (by courtesy) Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern University. He is also an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. Prindle’s research interests explore how molecular and cellular interactions give rise to collective behaviors in microbial communities. Additionally, Prindle is a member of the NITMB and Principal Investigator of the NITMB supported research project ‘DNA as a Carbon Reservoir: Spatiotemporal Modeling of Extracellular DNA (eDNA) Dynamics in Biofilms.’ 


We reached out to Arthur Prindle to learn more about his work, his inspirations, and why he’s excited to be a part of the NITMB.  


Can you share with us a big question you’ve been asking throughout your research? 


“The cell is the unit of life. However, cells in nature rarely exist in isolation, but rather reside in communities such as human tissues or microbial communities known as biofilms. This provokes a question: what rules of life govern the transition from a collection of individual cells to a multicellular community? By revealing the surprisingly sophisticated functions of multicellular bacterial communities, we are poised to challenge the traditional view of unicellular bacteria and forever change the way we think about how bacterial communities function. These insights will spur advances in both basic microbiology and biomedicine in the context of the human microbiome.” 


What disciplines does your research integrate? 


“I was originally trained as a chemical engineer and became interested in biology (and research in general) when I learned about the new field of synthetic biology. The goal of synthetic biology is to reprogram cells to perform new and useful functions that don’t exist in nature by applying tools and concepts from engineering. This was such an exciting idea to hear as an undergraduate and continues to motivate my work today. My joint faculty appointment in the Center for Synthetic Biology and at Feinberg signal Northwestern's commitment to developing my career as a junior faculty member whose research spans engineering, genetics and human health.” 


Where do you find inspiration? 


“I am fascinated by self-organization and the emergence of complexity in biological systems. Despite lacking many of the sophisticated signaling mechanisms of higher eukaryotes, a community of unicellular organisms can orchestrate surprisingly complex dynamic behaviors through collective regulation. It is fascinating to think about how the seemingly out-of-reach features of “higher organisms” may have been stumbled upon in early evolution by these communities of “lowly” bacteria. By revealing these surprising functions, we are poised to challenge the traditional view of unicellular bacteria and forever change the way we think about bacteria.” 


What aspects of the central question you’ve been working on could be interesting to mathematicians or applied to biology? 

 “Self-organization in bacterial communities involves spatiotemporal exchange of information among individual bacteria. This can take many forms, but often involves exchange of small molecule signals, such as quorum sensing, as well as metabolites and even ions. This multiscale reaction-diffusion network lends itself well to mathematical approaches such as agent-based modeling.” 


What about the mission of the NITMB do you find exciting? 


“Integrating mathematical approaches with biology can be challenging since there are many unknowns and the quality of data isn't always at the level of physical or engineered systems. Success requires a genuine and sustained commitment from both parties to persist through the challenges. One aspect of the NITMB is to facilitate and cultivate such interactions, and I am very excited to be part of it.” 


What career achievement are you most proud of? 


“The discovery that bacteria within biofilms communicate via potassium ion channels, a landmark publication that has now been cited over 700 times. These results are important because bacterial ion channels have provided fundamental structural insights into neuronal signaling—including the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003—yet the functional role of these ion channels in bacteria has remained elusive. The profound discovery that, like neurons in the brain, bacteria communicate via electrochemical signaling mediated by ion channels established the new field of bacterial electrophysiology. Building on this, my lab is now pushing the bacterial electrophysiology paradigm in truly unexpected directions that we hope to report in the coming years.” 


What interests do you have outside of your research? 


“Running, watching NFL football, and going on road trips with my kids.”  


What are you hoping to work on in the future? 


“My research program seeks to discover new biology underlying cell-to-cell signaling in microbial communities and to apply these discoveries to engineer these microbes to monitor and improve human health. This foundational work lies at an unexpected interface between microbiology and electrophysiology that has the potential to transform human health. Since I started my lab at Northwestern, I have been actively exploring collaborations on both the Chicago and Evanston campuses spanning multiple departments in the areas of basic science, applied math, engineering, and medicine. NITMB has been especially effective in organizing these cross-disciplinary interactions.” 


Arthur Prindle’s work can significantly benefit our understanding of microbial communities and human health. Introducing more mathematicians to Prindle’s work through connections facilitated by the NITMB will advance research in this area and ask new questions that inspire further work. The NITMB is proud to support Prindle’s research, and we look forward to exploring the discoveries this work may yield.  



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