Research Beat: Cross-department research effort investigates host-microbe interactions 

Invasive pathogens which harm the body also need nutrients to survive, the same as other organisms, and in getting these nutrients they often interact with metallophores. Research being conducted by Marcy Balunas of the UConn Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences takes advantage of this by looking into defense against these pathogens through these metallophores. Photo courtesy of Hippopx

Marcy Balunas, associate professor at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, has been researching the influence of metals in the chemical interactions between microbes and their hosts. 

Balunas has worked on this project since 2018, along with Professors Spencer Nyholm and Jonathan Klassen from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, as well as Professors Alfredo Angeles-Boza and Mark Peczuh from the Department of Chemistry.  

“This is very much a collaborative effort,” Balunas said in an interview. “The five of us have worked on projects together for a while.” 

Many animals, such as the Hawaiian bobtail squid and tunicates, as well as a fungus-growing ant species, interact with compounds called metallophores. These compounds can bind to metals that are essential for life, such as zinc and copper, which are found in trace amounts in most forms of life, according to the National Institute of Health.  

“By using marine and terrestrial life, with low and high levels of complexity, we can explore how metallophores interact with a diverse range of species,” Balunas explained. 

Beneficial microbes living with these animals also have the capability to interact with metallophores. Balunas and collaborators believe this phenomenon could be used in a drug delivery system. 

“It’s a Trojan Horse idea: harmful pathogens use metallophores to get essential metals to survive, so we plan to attach compounds onto these metallophores that are toxic to these pathogens to help deliver medicine to the body,” Balunas said. 

Balunas and her fellow researchers were recently given the 2021 Convergence Awards for Research in Interdisciplinary Centers by the UConn Office of the Vice President for Research in March, according to UConn Today. 

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