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Dr. Matthew Cabeen (right) in the lab.

Cabeen’s microbiology research team wins $1.7M NIH grant

Friday, September 17, 2021

Media Contact: Harrison Hill | Research Communications Specialist | 405-744-5827 | harrison.c.hill@Okstate.edu

Fall 2020 brought some happy news for Dr. Matthew Cabeen of OSU’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded his research team $1.7 million over five years to study how a bacterium senses and responds to stress.

“Our model organism, a ubiquitous non-pathogenic species called Bacillus subtilis, has an unusual way of sensing stress in its environment,” Cabeen said. “It uses relatively large multiprotein complexes called ‘stressosomes’ that are inside the cells — each cell contains 10-20 of them — to respond to stresses that are outside the cell in the environment, like ethanol, salt or antibiotics.”

Cabeen explained that because researchers don’t know exactly how this process works, their “research is aimed at a bottom-to-top understanding of environmental stress sensing, from the sensor proteins in these complexes to the fitness and survival of a whole cell population.” He added that the idea for this study grew from research he did as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, where he observed that “stressosomes act as a sort of processor — you give them an input and then they process it to yield a different output.”

“The central question of, ‘How do stressosomes sense and process stress?’ was the basis for all of the ideas in the project.”
Because the research Cabeen and his team are working on is “basic science,” he said the results won’t necessarily affect people directly.

“However, the more we learn about bacterial stress responses, the better equipped we will be to either fight against pathogenic bacteria — for example, the food-borne pathogen Listeria monocytogenes also uses stressosomes to sense environmental stress — or to use microbes to make medicines and other useful products.”

Members of Cabeen’s research team include postdoctoral fellow Dr. Simon Underhill, doctoral students Rabindra Khadka and Chris Hamm, Niblack Scholar Sid Bush and several undergraduate students.

“Rabi, Chris and Sid actually helped generate some of the preliminary data that we used in the proposal,” Cabeen said. “My crew is smart, hardworking and fun-loving, and so going into the lab every day is a delight for me. They’re already making great progress.”

Khadka expressed similar appreciation for Cabeen, explaining that the professor has given his students unique opportunities for learning and growth.

“He is very supportive,” Khadka said. “He provides full, informative feedback about the experiments and results. … It is under his supervision that I got my first opportunity to present my work at an international conference, which helped me grow my confidence.”

As a result of working just one semester in Cabeen’s lab as an undergrad, Hamm actually changed career paths. He had originally planned to apply to medical school, but decided to stay at OSU to work on a doctorate with Cabeen.

“When Dr. Cabeen talks about science, you can feel how much he enjoys it and how excited he gets about new ideas,” Hamm said. “He is very passionate about science and is always up for a discussion about new ideas, how something works — anything really. He makes the lab an enjoyable place to work and a healthy learning environment.”

Like Hamm, Cabeen also altered his career path as he finished up dual bachelor’s degrees from the University of Connecticut in diagnostic genetic sciences and molecular cell biology.

“I thought I would be a genetic technologist, but then I fell in love with research,” Cabeen said. “Immediately after graduation, I enrolled in graduate school at Yale University.”

After earning his Ph.D., he did a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard.

Cabeen added that his goal early on was to become a professor, which has allowed him to combine his love of teaching and research. With this NIH grant, he can continue those endeavors.

“I’m really pleased to say that this grant is part of a great funding trend for the department,” said Cabeen, who estimated that the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics leads departments in the College of Arts and Sciences in grant dollars per faculty member, bringing in over $2 million in research grants annually.

“Those dollars pay graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and enable us to buy the supplies and equipment we need to get research done. Grants like this also really help OSU improve its research profile in every way — they help us to recruit talented new faculty and students, which in turn helps us to receive more funding down the road. And the end goal of having talented and well-funded teams of researchers is to make exciting discoveries that advance the frontier of scientific knowledge.”


Photos By: Adam Bronson and Jason Wallace

Story By: Elizabeth Gosney | egosney@okstate.edu

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