NDSU researcher explores micro-world to help prevent diseases
Bacteria are incredibly tiny and all around us; some types can cause serious diseases. Whether it’s a middle-ear infection, cystic fibrosis or a deadly foodborne illness, bacteria can be at the root of infectious health problems.
NDSU researcher Birgit Pruess is doing everything she can to understand and, perhaps, combat the microorganisms.
Pruess, associate professor of veterinary and microbiological sciences, is conducting intensive research on an extensive collection of bacteria, called bacterial biofilms. In her lab, she studies the development of infectious disease, trying to understand the microorganisms’ impact on immune systems and how the disease process works.
According to Pruess, biofilms are a social form of bacteria that form on a variety of surfaces, such as teeth, medical supplies or food safety equipment.
“Bacteria are alive. They do show behavioral forms, and they move,” Pruess explained. “A biofilm is like a community, where they communicate and they have a little bit of memory.”
Pruess finds the basic research fascinating, with each day bringing new directions and different opportunities.
“The long-term hope is that we will be able to develop prevention techniques. If that doesn’t work, then we want to develop treatment options,” Pruess said, suggesting in the future novel drugs might be created to treat the illnesses.
“What we are doing is for people’s benefit – not necessarily a drug that is going to be on the shelf tomorrow, but in the long term,” Pruess said. “This is a longer process, but we also learn other things in the meantime that can lead to other applications that we have missed or may not know yet.
“I want people to see we are not just working in one direction,” she said. “And good things can sometimes take a while.”
Educated in Germany, Pruess earned her doctorate at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Her hometown is Gelsenkirchen, a community about 20 minutes from the city of Düsseldorf.
After her postdoctoral experience, Pruess was invited for interviews at 11 American universities – she decided to join the NDSU faculty seven years ago. “I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I decided to be open minded. I came here and things fell into place. I saw opportunity here,” she said. “I did not know much about North Dakota, but people are welcoming here. I was able to do the kind of research here that I wanted to.”
Her bacteria research projects now receive funding from the National Institutes of Health, North Dakota Beef Commission and the State Board of Research and Education.
“What keeps me motivated is the combination of the basic research and the application. If it was just the application, that wouldn’t challenge me as much,” said Pruess, whose personal goals include continuing her research, educating students and working on diversity issues.
“I have found those things very rewarding,” Pruess said. “I also want to be open about my research, to reach out so people understand that this will be a benefit to them someday.”