We are pleased to welcome Professor Ruby Sullan, who has joined the department at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) as our newest faculty member in biophysical chemistry. Sullan complements the biological cluster at UTSC, bringing expertise in mechanisms of bacterial adhesion by studying bacterial attachment to surfaces at the single cell and single molecule level using atomic force microscopy (AFM).
An alumna of our department, Sullan completed her PhD with Professor Gilbert Walker in 2010, studying the mechanisms of adhesion of barnacles, and the mechanics of their very tough and sticky glue.
So began her research quest, leading to her first postdoctoral position studying the physics of AFM with Professor Tom Perkins at JILA, University of Colorado-Boulder, where her work focused on improving the performance of AFM for biological applications. This was followed by a move to Belgium, where she examined the nanoscale properties of bacterial pathogens by AFM with Professor Yves Dufrêne at Université catholique de Louvain (UCL).
“As a grad student I was also fascinated by bacteria studied by AFM,” says Sullan, “so I started looking at bacteria with AFM and how bacteria molecules stick to surfaces.” She conducted both single molecule and single cell studies of bacteria adhesive and the bacteria itself, to measure how well it adheres to surfaces.
By then Sullan knew she wanted to examine biofilms. Intrigued by their formation – how a “single” bacterial cell attaching to a surface can develop into a complex and highly structured community – she wants to gain more insight into the mechanical forces involved in the initial attachment. So for one final stop on her postdoctoral journey, she joined the lab of Dr. Kerstin Blank at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in neighbouring Germany to study molecular biology and mutation techniques such as molecular cloning.
Now eager to get her own research program underway in the Mechano-microbiology Lab, Sullan plans to examine the initial stages of bacterial biofilm formation on different materials, combining AFM imaging, force spectroscopy and optical microscopy in a 3-way correlated measurement.
Applications for this research lie in the development of strategies for the design of molecules and antimicrobial coatings that can inhibit bacterial attachment to surfaces. The initial focus of her lab is the early stages of biofilm formation but will eventually extend to mature biofilms, where quorum sensing – that is, the collective behaviour of bacteria that can lead to nasty outcomes such as toxin production – plays a central role.
Sullan hopes that by understanding and ultimately interfering with bacterial attachment to surfaces, her research may contribute to the development of anti-quorum sensing molecules to improve outcomes in infectious disease, as well as coatings that prevent bacteria from sticking but are still biocompatible and may therefore find use in medical implants, e.g. catheters and prosthetic heart valves.
“I’m really looking forward to having the lab fully functional so that we can embark on the project,” says Sullan, “and it feels surreal to be back. U of T, the Chemistry department, Toronto, Canada. It’s like coming back home. I’m happy and excited to work on these research questions in a U of T setting.”