Hiding within simple amoebae — single-celled organisms — are lessons for human health, and Dr. Tera Levin is seeking them out. The postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Harmit Malik’s lab at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center studies the evolutionary arms race between the bacterium that causes Legionnaire’s disease and its amoeba hosts. She recently received a prestigious four-year K99 Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to pursue this work as the foundation for her independent research career.
Levin focuses on the competing strategies that Legionella pneumophila and its Dictyostelium amoeba hosts have developed to infect and ward off infection. It’s a rare model system that allows researchers to examine both sides of these interactions in the laboratory — and potentially glean insights with implications for treating this severe form of pneumonia in humans.
“The interaction of L. pneumophila bacterium with its amoeba host is more important for human health than you might think,” Levin said.
L. pneumophila has spent eons evolving molecular weaponry it can use to infect amoebae. Amoebae, in turn, have simultaneously been evolving ways to counteract L. pneumophila. This ongoing battle plays out in environmental water supplies — which, unfortunately for us, include air conditioners and shower heads that allow the bacteria to be airborne and inhaled. When L. pneumophila ends up in our lungs, it turns its molecular weaponry against us, causing an atypical pneumonia.
Insights into this evolution could highlight potential targets to prevent outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease. Levin aims to discover how the Legionella–Dictyostelim arms race works, and how the strategies L. pneumophila uses to infect amoebae give it the ability to jump species.
“If we could figure out how to disrupt the Legionella–amoeba interaction, that would help us a lot,” she said.
The K99 award, given to researchers likely to become leaders in their field, is well earned, Malik said. Levin built the project from the ground up, making connections with collaborators and acting as “a great mentor” to others in the lab.
In choosing to study Legionella, “Tera is branching far beyond what the lab is known for,” which takes a lot of scientific courage, he said. “She’s already had success in my lab, and she’ll be able to translate this award to success in her own future lab.”
Levin’s Pathway to Independence Award will fund two years of research as she gains the tools she needs to begin her independent career, plus two additional years as she establishes her own laboratory. Levin credits strong mentorship, particularly by Malik, in her success.
“It’s very exciting,” Levin said of the award, on which she received a perfect 10-point score. “It will help ensure a great start to my future lab’s research.”
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.