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Innovation award goes to UW-Madison biochemist

Douglas Weibel, an assistant professor of biochemistry and biomedical engineering, has received the prestigious National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. Weibel studies how bacteria make the cell wall that separates them from the environment.

“Scientists want to re-explore the cell wall as a possible Achilles heel for treating bacterial infections,” says Weibel. “The cell wall was the first target of the penicillins, the first antibiotics, but a disturbing range of pathogenic bacteria have developed resistance to multiple antibiotics.”

Bacteria rebuild their cell walls during reproduction and as they grow, says Weibel, who has pioneered methods to measure the wall’s stiffness. “When bacteria grow, they make chinks in the cell wall that must they fill with new wall precursors.”

The wall must be strong, he adds. “There is a tremendous osmotic pressure across the wall. The molecules on the inside want to get out, and that creates a pressure that can be many times higher than atmospheric pressure.”

If the cell wall fails, the bacteria will “blow up” — empty into its surroundings and die, Weibel says, and so studies of the cell wall could lead to solutions to a pressing medical problem: the ever-increasing range of bacteria that defy many — and sometimes all — antibiotics.

To learn about the genes and proteins involved in building the cell wall, Weibel has assembled a library of mutant bacteria and plans to test them, one by one, to see how each mutation affects the cell wall’s stiffness. Stiffness results from a mesh built of strands of sugars that are linked together by flexible bonds, Weibel says. “This material conveys all the mechanical properties to the cell wall, and we aim to understand how it is made in detail so that we can exploit it to kill many types of bacteria.”

The innovator’s awards are given annually “to support exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential for unusually high impact,” according to the National Institutes of Health. The awards were conferred this morning at the seventh annual NIH Director’s Pioneer Award Symposium in Bethesda, Md.