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Researchers Awarded Million-Dollar Bacterial Evolution Grant

Bacteria in nature go through "feast and famine" cycles, which IU labs will be mimicking.

Four years ago, IU biology professor Patricia Foster received a $6.5 million grant, along with fellow professor Michael Lynch, to study bacterial evolution in controlled environments.

Now they’ve received another $6.2 million from the U.S. Army Research Office to do the same thing – but this time the environments won’t be so controlled.

“So when we grow microorganisms in the laboratory, we give them absolutely everything they want to live. All the carbohydrates, sugars, proteins – whatever they need, we give them. But now we’re going to withdraw those things, which is closer to the way they live in the natural environment,” Foster says.

Foster’s lab is one of five in this project. She’ll be focusing on one strain of E. coli and the genetic mutations they undergo in these stressful environments. The other IU labs will focus on different bacteria strains and different environments, and a lab at the University of Chicago will focus on the proteins in the bacteria.

Foster says there have been smaller studies along the same lines, but theirs is the first of this scale. And it may seem odd that the U.S. Army is funding basic research like this, but she says there could be military applications in the future.

“Troops out in the field, they’re eating food – is the food getting contaminated, is the water they’re drinking getting contaminated – are there are ways we can detect that sort of thing based on the work we’re doing?” Foster says.

The project will take five years to complete.

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