NSF $2.5 million grant awarded to MSU’s Jordan, other scientists to study disease-causing pathogen

Contact: Harriet Laird

Heather Jordan (Photo by Megan Bean)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—A Mississippi State biological sciences researcher is a member of a scientific team receiving $2.5 million to study a bacterial pathogen that triggers infectious disease.

These five scientists, including MSU Assistant Professor Heather Jordan, are using the four-year award from the National Science Foundation to investigate Mycobacterium ulcerans, which causes Buruli ulcer, an environmental disease third only to leprosy and tuberculosis in chronic, bacterial human infections.

Jordan, who studies Mycobacterium ulcerans genes and their host environments in MSU’s Department of Biological Sciences, said few studies have been done on this particular pathogen’s ability to spread in specific environments, such as tropical regions similar to French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America where the research will be conducted.

“While pathogen-host studies have led to great advances in disease treatment, there is restricted advancement in developing effective environmental or behavioral prevention,” she said of the study focused in the undeveloped, temperate territory of France that’s more than 98 percent rainforest and where Buruli ulcer is endemic.

“Conducting studies of environmental pathogens within their natural environments not only is important to understanding microorganisms that can cause disease such as Buruli ulcer, but also the native environment interactions and movement among a variety of these pathogens that can lead to disease emergence,” said Jordan, the project’s co-principal investigator.

During the first year of research, the team will travel abroad to survey the area and learn how to best navigate parts of the Amazon, the world’s second longest river that flows through French Guiana and several other countries. Then, the scientists will begin taking samples, and conducting field work and laboratory analysis with the assistance of graduate and undergraduate students.

“This will be both challenging and rewarding for the students,” Jordan said. “I had some of the best times of my life conducting field work for my Ph.D., meeting new friends and colleagues, and really developing life and work skills that I have brought with me to MSU.”

Principal investigator is Eric Benbow, associate professor, Michigan State University, along with other co-principal investigators Jennifer Pechal, assistant professor, Michigan State University; Michael Sandel, assistant professor, University of West Alabama; and Jean-Francois Guegan, research professor, French Institute for Research on Sustainable Development.