Most people take it for granted that the water they swim in, wash the dog in, and soak the dishes in is pretty safe. To put it another way, most of us – unless some public alarm bell is sounded – don’t often give a second thought to the water we use so casually day in and day out. However, there is real reason to think about it more cautiously. Why? Man-made aquatic systems, if not treated properly, become fertile hosts for biofilm communities of microbes – including Legionella pneumophila (i.e. Legionnaires' disease). If these pathogens are aerated, they can be breathed by humans – and so begins an outbreak.
Yes, the prospects are frightening. Which goes a long way in explaining why Clemson microbiologist Dr. Tamara McNealy is conducting very focused research aimed at preventing and eliminating contamination of our water systems and developing treatments for those already affected by contamination. It is work that uses classic lab science to safeguard human health.
How? Why? When? These are the kind of basic but critical scientific questions Dr. McNealy asks in the full scope of her research dealing with the biology of bacteria. Explaining the colonizing of pathogens in water systems is, of course, one key piece of the puzzle she is assembling.
Another piece is aiding the medical community’s fight against the prospect of runaway resistance to antibiotics. Resistant strains of infectious agents – from TB to staph to a host of other nasty bugs – already pose a serious threat. Bacteria able to block an antibiotic (i.e. keep it from penetrating the cell wall) will survive to multiply and spread. By studying how bacteria might take up nanoparticles naturally, Dr. McNealy is looking at the possibility of constructing a Trojan horse, a particle that could smuggle a dose of antibiotic into the cell.
Yet another key – and quite practical – piece of her research is geared toward reducing health care costs by reprocessing and reusing medical devices. “By their very design, including many small crevices, medical instruments are difficult to clean and, for that reason, are often used once and then disposed of,” she explains. Integrating nanoparticles into the cleaning process is one feasible way to extend the safe and useful life of these instruments.
Dr. McNealy's research opportunities received a boost recently when her lab was moved to Clemson's new 100,000 square-foot Life Sciences Facility, a $50 million home to the University's microbiologists. The facility's 25 laboratories are organized by research clusters to encourage collaboration. "This is exciting in many ways," explains Dr. McNealy. "The more microbiologists can be together in one building, the more we can talk about our research and discover new ideas we might be able to generate."
Tamara McNealy, Assistant Professor of Biology, earned her Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. She also completed post doc work in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene at the University of Ulm in Germany and at the Center for Immunology and Microbial Disease at Albany Medical College. She is currently establishing a collaborative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta that will enable her Critical Inquiry students to study and assist in the sequencing of Legionella samples housed there.
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