When bacterial communities grow on surfaces surrounded by a matrix as a kind of protective casing, they form what is called a biofilm. Biologist Jaione Valle (born in Pamplona in 1977) has just received a L’Oréal-UNESCO ‘Women in Science’ grant of €15,000 for her research into the biofilm formed by gut microbiota. Her work focuses on discovering whether there is a relationship between the biofilm and certain conditions, such as neurodegenerative or auto-immune diseases.
After obtaining her PhD in Biology, the scientist was awarded a Marie Curie grant to extend her training at the Genetics of Biofilms laboratory at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. She then returned to Spain and is currently a researcher in the Universidad Pública de Navarra’s Microbial Pathogenesis group at the Navarrabiomed research centre.
Thank you. I didn’t expect to receive the L’Oréal-UNESCO grant this year. I applied for it in 2013 and didn’t get it, so it’s been quite a surprise.
Why have you been awarded this grant?
In recognition of my career and the project I presented for identifying amyloid proteins in the gut microbiota’s biofilm.
What are bacterial biofilms?
They are pathogenic or commensal bacterial communities (such as oral or gut microbiota) that grow on surfaces or tissues surrounded by a matrix, which is a kind of film that wraps around the bacteria made of polysaccharides and different proteins, some of which take on the structure of an amyloid. Even though we already know that amyloid proteins are related to different neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, what is interesting is that different bacteria use these amyloid proteins to build the biofilm’s matrix.
The aim of my research is to identify the amyloid proteins in the gut microbiota’s biofilm in order to find out what role they play in maintaining intestinal homeostasis or triggering certain diseases.
What is the function of the matrix?
It allows the bacteria to live in a community and protects them from the actions of the immune system or, in the case of pathogens, drugs. In the gut microbiota, it is a protective barrier against desiccation, allowing for the accumulation of nutrients while avoiding colonisation by other pathogenic bacteria. It’s a kind of casing for bacteria so they can protect themselves from environmental stresses and the actions of external factors. It also probably plays an important role in interacting with the immune system and maintaining homeostasis or balance.
How is it formed?
The bacteria themselves synthesise and secrete the components of the biofilm’s matrix. And one of the components they secrete to create the matrix is amyloid proteins.
How can it be applied to understand better how bacterial biofilms are formed and what their role is?
It may help us fight pathogenic bacteria, possibly by using drugs that stop the casing being formed. With regards to gut microbiota, we can try to encourage the formation of a biofilm made up of a specific bacteria or group of bacterial communities.
It could also be applied in faecal transplants. Using a biofilm, which is the natural habitat for microorganisms, would probably encourage the establishing of the gut microbiota. It could also be very useful for probiotics and in fact, we already have third-generation probiotics that are being administered in biofilm form.
The L’Oréal-UNESCO’s ‘Women in Science’ grant acknowledges young female scientists. Do we still need to make this distinction between genders?
Considerable inequalities between men and women still remain in the field of research, so awards like this one, in addition to highlighting the work of female scientists and promoting vocations, also encourage more women to embark on a career in research, which is tough.
It’s like a marathon; you have to work really hard for a long time. The problem is that as women, we come to a point in life–for different reasons, including motherhood–where we have to stop or slow down, and that leads to many differences compared to men. When you want to get back to where you were, unlike men, you have to sprint. It’s also true that women have come into research much later; perhaps that’s the reason we are taking longer to get into positions of responsibility, for example.
The L’Oréal-UNESCO programme began in 1998 with the aim of acknowledging and highlighting the work of female researchers worldwide, while also promoting scientific vocations among young women. Every year, five awards are presented to prestigious female scientists in recognition of their careers, along with grants for young researchers, like the one received by Valle this year.