Professor Jennifer R Potts

Head of Department

Chair of Molecular Biophysics



PURE Staff link York Research Database

Structural Biology of Host Pathogen Interactions and Biofilm Formation

Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidiscan form difficult to eradicate colonies, known as biofilms, on the surfaces of prosthetic devices such as heart valves, catheters and artificial joints. These device-associated infections are a significant clinical problem and can be difficult to treat with antibiotics. Such infections thus adversely affect patients and place a large financial burden on health services. We are studying proteins and other polymeric molecules involved in staphylococcal biofilm formation. Our aim is to understand how biofilms form so that new prevention strategies could be developed.

Fig. 1 Unusual rod-shaped structure of a repetitive staphylococcal surface protein involved in biofilm formation.

In the early stages of infection, bacteria attach to host tissue. Interactions between host and bacterial proteins are also likely to play an important role in the maintenance and spread of infection in the body. One aim of our research is to understand how bacterial proteins bind to human proteins including cell surface receptors. We are studying repetitive proteins found on the surface of a range of Gram positive bacteria several of which are human pathogens. Our aim is to understand how the structure of these proteins, and their repetitive nature, play a role in function. The lab uses techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography, isothermal titration calorimetry, surface plasmon resonance and multi-angle light scattering.

Fig. 2 NMR and X-ray crystallography studies of bacterial surface proteins involved in human cell binding.

Teaching and Scholarship

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‌As a teacher I try to use my experience in, and enthusiasm for, molecular science to help students learn the fundamentals of a subject and also to become skilled at extending their knowledge through independent research.

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‌As a structural biologist, my lecture material includes the interesting fundamentals of protein structure, how structure relates to function and the methods that can be used to determine the structure of proteins at high resolution. My teaching is inspired by my research, which uses biophysical methods to study proteins involved in bacterial infection. These proteins include those that enable Gram positive bacteria to adhere to human tissues and bacterial proteins and other polymers that enable the development of infections (biofilms) on the surfaces of medical devices.

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‌Subjects could include molecular biology, structural biology and biophysical techniques for studying protein structure and function.  Tutorials are an excellent opportunity for students to ask questions and discuss a subject in more detail. Student preparation for tutorials can include reading, essay writing or the preparation of a more formal short presentation. 

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‌Students taking a project in my lab will be working on a project related to our ongoing research. I offer both primarily lab based and computer based projects. Lab work often includes protein expression, purification and biophysical characterization of a bacterial protein domain. Computer based work could include assignment of heteronuclear nuclear magnetic resonance spectra of a protein domain. Students have many informal and formal opportunities to discuss their project with either their day-to-day supervisor in the lab or the project supervisor. The final year project is an excellent opportunity to experience what it is like to work in a research lab. 

Contact details

Prof. Jennifer R Potts
Head of Department
Department of Biology, B/K/123
University of York
Heslington, York, YO10 5DD

Tel: 01904 328555