Rebecca Devine – Antibiotic resistance & leaf cutters

Name: Rebecca Devine

Location: UEA School of Biology, Norwich

What do you do?

I’m a PhD student in my third year of four and I spend my time looking for new antibiotics. All of the work in our lab focuses on bacteria called Streptomyces that produce lots of different antibiotics. These bacteria are found almost everywhere but lots of them are found in soil (that’s where we get most of our clinically used antibiotics). Unfortunately, a lot of diseases are becoming resistant to the antibiotics we already have. My job is to look for new Streptomyces strains producing new antibiotics.

Our lab is looking in the nests of leaf cutter ants. These ants don’t actually eat the leaves they carry back to their nest because they can’t digest them. Instead they chew them up into a kind of mulch, grow a fungus garden on them and eat the fungus. However, sometimes the fungus can become infected. So, the ants have taken Streptomyces bacteria from their environment and carry them around on their chest plate. The bacteria are making antibiotics all the time and the ants can use them to treat the fungus.

We think one strain of bacteria can make between 35-40 different antibiotics and my job is to try and figure out what they can be used for, what they treat and what they look like!

What can you see?

We have several ant colonies in the lab, some of them just in Tupperware boxes so you wouldn’t even know they were there. We have three different species and you can tell the difference between their size and behaviour. It’s quite interesting just to watch them, especially when they’ve just been fed and they’re carrying all their leaves around. They quite like brambles so sometimes we just go outside and cut some of those off the bushes for them

When I’m not doing science I…

Am a musician. I play flute and piano in the UEA symphony orchestra. I travel quite a lot too to see my boyfriend, also a PhD student, in Bath. Being a PhD student you have the flexibility to travel because you can arrange all your lab work around it.

If you’d like to find out more about Rebecca’s research, and other cutting each research at UEA, check out their twitter feed:@UEAResearch