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Professor Ross Fitzgerald on bacterial adaptation

Discovering how bacteria evolve and cause infection, bringing people together and juggling research and managerial responsibilities.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the Personal Chair of Molecular Bacteriology, specialising in understanding the evolution of bacteria and their capacity to adapt to different environments. In this interview, Professor Fitzgerald talks about his ongoing projects, recent advancements in the field of bacteriology and the importance of work-life balance. 


Professor Ross Fitzgerald

Could you tell me about your research background?

I'm a microbiologist by training. I did my undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences and my PhD on bacterial population genetics at Trinity College in Dublin, then did postdoctoral research in the United States, in the National Institutes of Health based in Montana US. We had scientists from all over the world working in this research institute in a small town. It was an interesting blend of scientists and creative types, artists and writers who were inspired by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.

After Montana, I moved back to Dublin to do more postdoc research, then moved to the University of Edinburgh for a lectureship in 2004. I’ve worked in the Roslin Institute for around 12 years.

My research focuses on understanding how bacteria evolve and cause disease. I'm particularly interested in how new bacteria emerge and adapt to different environments. The main focus in my lab is on understanding how bacteria can switch between different species. It can jump from humans, for example, into livestock or poultry, and they then adapt to survive and cause disease in those new animals. It can potentially then jump back into human populations causing zoonotic diseases.

What sparked your interest to understand the evolution of bacteria?

I've always been interested in microbiology, and I can trace that back to a really good biology teacher who I had in school. We went beyond the curriculum, we set up agar plates in the lab and he encouraged us to sample ourselves and the environment to see what micro-organisms lived there. That really captured my imagination. I studied natural science in university, but was always leaning towards microbes and understanding how they could cause disease.

You recently stepped down as Director of the Edinburgh Infectious Diseases network. What kind of work did you do there?

I joined Edinburgh Infectious Diseases (EID) back in 2016. It was valuable for me to get a broader perspective of the research and interests across the spectrum in Edinburgh and to be involved in coordinating strategies. The main goal of EID is to bring people together. We have these different campuses in the University, and many people interested in infectious diseases across different areas. It is imperative to be able to bring people together and to provide strategic oversight and opportunities for people to collaborate. That was really the main driving force for me. I got involved in lots of events and initiatives, as well as in supporting the next generation of Infectious disease scientists including through the coordination of PhD programmes and the likes. It's been a hugely valuable experience.

Are there any recent breakthroughs in your field that you're particularly excited about?

One of the major tools that we've applied over the years is whole genome sequencing. When I first started we were able to determine the genetic sequence of maybe one or two individual bacterial strains, and we've got to the point now where we're including thousands of different bacterial strains in a single genomic data set. That's providing a very high level of resolution, helping us understand the relationships between bacteria and then trace their lineages back in time to see when they diverged, and when different evolutionary events happened.

Being able to trace the evolutionary history of bacteria gives us lots of information about how they have emerged, their capacity to cause disease and to develop resistance against antibiotics. That information can then be useful in making predictions about what might happen in the future, or give us information that will allow us to limit the emergence of new bacterial diseases.

We're also now applying long read nanopore sequencing, a technology which directly sequences long stretches of DNA to give us insights into the genetic basis of diseases.

Do you have a favourite project that you've been involved in?

I've been trying to understand how bacteria switch and adapt from one host to another, using an important global pathogen called Staphylococcus aureus as my model to do that. I've been researching this since I did my PhD and we've learned an awful lot in that time, but there's still so much more to learn. I suppose that's probably my favorite project, because it's lasted for nearly 30 years.

Why study Staph aureus specifically?

I fell into working on Staph aureus because that was a PhD project available when I was looking, but it turns out it's a good model for looking at how bacteria switch between hosts, because it has the remarkable capacity to readily adapt to different environments and selective pressures including both antibiotics and different host species.

It does this by a number of different mechanisms including acquiring genes from other microbes and by generating random mutations that may provide a fitness advantage. These changes may encode factors which are important for survival in the new species. Staph aureus is very efficient at doing this, so it's a nice model to understand.

What are some of the challenges you face in your work, and how do you think they'll be evolving over the coming years?

As an academic, there are a couple of things I find challenging. One is managing my time and getting the right balance between supporting my research team, getting involved in more senior management activity, writing papers and grant applications.

Funding is the second main challenge, it's always in the back of my mind. It’s a challenge to ensure grants have continuity in my research group. We are fortunate to work on an area that is considered an important public health issue, especially with the rise of antibiotic resistance in hospitals. We have benefited from good funding in the past, and hopefully that'll continue to be the case over the next few years, but it’s always challenging.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

One of the nice things about the job is there are a lot of different things to do, and it rarely gets boring. I spend quite a bit of my time writing, whether that's writing papers or grants applications or doing administrative tasks, mixed with meetings with students and with my team as well as management responsibilities. I don't spend any time in the lab, and I think my research team would probably say that's the way they’d like to keep it. I aspire to return someday, but they probably have other ideas.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be doing?

I thought about becoming a doctor at one point. My father was a pediatric surgeon and I thought about following his footsteps into medicine before I decided to follow my own path. We work hard in academia, but I value the time I get to spend at weekends with my family and I’m very happy with the choices I’ve made.