Indiana University Bloomington

IU's Wood Lecture for undergraduate women brings award-winning microbiologist to campus

Harvard's Dutton uses cheese as model microbial ecosystem

  • March 18, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Award-winning Harvard microbiologist Rachel J. Dutton, a molecular geneticist turned environmental microbiologist using cheese as a way to understand microbial ecosystems, and will present Indiana University’s 33rd Joan Wood Lecture. The lecture series, which recognizes the career of the late IU geneticist and medical doctor, is designed to encourage undergraduate women to pursue advanced degrees in science by showcasing the many career opportunities available to science majors.

“Food for Thought: Combining the Right Ingredients for an Exciting Career in Science” is the title of Dutton’s talk, which will take place at 4 p.m. Monday, March 31, in Room 130 of Myers Hall. She’ll again speak to faculty and students the following day as part of the Microbiology Seminar Series, where her topic will be “Food for Thought: Cheese as a Model Microbial Ecosystem.”

Dutton received her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School in 2010 while earning the school’s 2011 Fields Prize for graduate students “exemplifying intellectual creativity, collegiality and compassion.” She was honored with the American Society for Microbiology’s Sarber Award for “research excellence and potential” in 2010.

Before cheese, Dutton’s work focused on an important process for bacterial protein secretion: the creation of disulfide bonds. These covalent bonds between cysteine residues aid in the stability and folding of many secreted proteins. She has used genetic, bioinformatic and phylogenetic methods to analyze pathways for disulfide bond formation across the bacterial tree of life, analyzing 400 bacterial genomes for homologs of the known disulfide bond formation pathway while watching for a bias of even numbers of cysteines in exported proteins.

Her comparative, bioinformatic analyses, suggesting that proteins critical to disulfide bond formation were missing in many bacterial genomes, led her to hypothesize that an alternative pathway for disulfide bond formation must exist in many other bacteria. She eventually discovered that alternative pathway and found it utilizes a homolog of the warfarin (Coumadin)-sensitive blood coagulation enzyme from humans, vitamin K epoxide reductase, or  VKOR. She then showed that the VKOR homolog in Mycobacterium tuberculosis can function in E. coli, leading to an assay of the protein's activity and also the discovery that the mycobacterial enzyme is sensitive to anti-coagulants. The results have led to subsequent collaborations with tuberculosis and blood coagulation laboratories, and a high throughput screen for inhibitors of the bacterium or for anticoagulants.

Awarded a Bauer fellowship at Harvard University to start an independent research group, Dutton has combined her self-described passions of microbiology and food into a research program that has the goal of using cheese as a way to understand microbial ecosystems. Her lab is now studying cheeses from around the world and looking at how cheese microbes interact with each other to form communities. In addition, the lab is collaborating with chefs and cheesemakers to develop fermented foods using native microbes.

Working at the intersection of food and science has also allowed Dutton to pursue her interests in science communication and outreach. She has been a speaker at events such as the World Science Festival, and she regularly gives classes to the general public on the science of cheese and other fermented foods. Research from the Dutton lab has been featured in Lucky Peach magazine, the PBS television series "The Mind of a Chef," The Boston Globe and The New York Times, as well as on National Public Radio.

The Joan Wood Lecture Series is managed by the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology and is funded in Wood’s honor through memorial contributions.

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Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton

Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton to give 33rd Joan Wood Lecture

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Stephen Chaplin