A $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will allow Amy Hitchcock Camp, assistant professor of biological sciences, to investigate how particular types of bacteria “talk” during development, knowledge that could lead to finding new medical approaches to curing serious infections or diseases.
The five-year grant, from the NIH Director's New Innovator Award program, was awarded to Camp earlier this month. The New Innovator Award supports “exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential for unusually high impact,” according to the NIH.
Camp, who joined MHC’s science faculty over the summer, studies the cell and molecular biology of bacteria. She will use this funding to investigate how bacteria—once assumed to be antisocial organisms—“talk” with one another to coordinate complex biological processes.
More specifically, Camp and her students will study the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, a harmless relative of the anthrax-causing bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Both species of bacteria can transform themselves into a metabolically dormant and environmentally resistant cell type called a spore. This primitive developmental process involves two sister cells that work together so that one of them can become a spore; the other cell ultimately dies. In her research, Camp “eavesdrops” on these two sporulating cells to discover unexpected ways they communicate and control gene expression.
“In my earlier research, I discovered the two sporulating cells engage in a surprising mode of cell-to-cell communication, in which one cell appears to ‘feed’ nutrients and metabolites to the other via a unique tubelike apparatus,” says Camp. This feeding tube model has broadly reframed current thinking as to how bacteria can communicate at close range.
The NIH grant will allow Camp to search for direct and comprehensive evidence for her “feeding tube” model of bacterial cell-to-cell communication. This evidence could provide researchers with new ways to kill or halt the development of harmful bacteria, Camp says.
“It may be possible to target the feeding stage as a way to stop spores from harmful bacteria from fully developing,” she says.
The grant is the second awarded by NIH to Camp this year. In July, she received a $200,000 Academic Research Enhancement Award. This funding will allow Camp and her students to pursue a second line of related research, aimed at dissecting the regulatory mechanisms required for the precise transition from early to late gene expression in the developing Bacillus subtilis spore.
Besides setting up her lab and running research programs, Camp teaches cell biology and bacterial cell biology at the College.
“I was thrilled to join the Mount Holyoke faculty,” she says. “Working at MHC allows me to combine my love for research and teaching.”
During her career, Camp has received other recognitions, including the Hauser Teaching Award and a Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship. Her research has been published in journals including Genes and Development, Molecular Microbiology, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Camp earned her A.B. in molecular biology from Princeton University and went on to receive her Ph.D. and postdoctoral training in the fields of cell/molecular biology and microbiology at Harvard University. Between her Ph.D. and postdoctoral training, she served for one year as a visiting assistant professor at Mount Holyoke.