Are bacteria actually living
organisms? Bacteria comprise a single cell; they do not possess a nucleus, and yet, they have at their disposal all the necessities of life: genetic material as well as proteins which provide the food for their metabolism. And, of course, they are capable of procreation by cell division. Even though they do quite well on their own, they prefer the company of other bacteria. Most bacteria collaborate, thereby setting in motion the processes that cause illness in humans. Throughout, they tend to resort to cunning methods; they play hide-and-seek with possible adversaries such as antibiotic medications.
Tanmay Bharat specializes in the study of these microscopic organisms. The molecular biologist observes bacterial cultures in detail. Born in New Delhi, the 36-year-old came to Oxford on a scholarship to support the completion of his biology degree. He subsequently moved to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg for his PhD in order to study viruses – namely Ebola and HIV – which are log scales smaller than bacteria. As a postdoc, he started out in Cambridge and shortly thereafter moved to the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology on the Oxford University campus. For the past four years, the young scientist has headed his own laboratory with 14 members (before the pandemic). COVID-measures have reduced his lab to ten members.
During our conversation, he refers to both current and historic context. It was at this very university that an academic laboratory, in collaboration with a pharmaceutical company, developed the COVID vaccine Astra Zeneca in record time. Likewise, prior to the second world war, penicillin, the first antibiotic ever, was launched in Oxford and subsequently distributed across the world, which, according to Bharat, “significantly changed human history.” The ambitious researcher is inspired by his professional surroundings, and he considers his work as a molecular biologist to be an absolute dream job. It is therefore not surprising that the ambitions of the soon-to-be father of two aim high. His goal: offering the next big blockbuster antibiotic to the world. And how does he relax? “Once you are dealing with children and changing diapers it’s hard to think of antibiotics”, he says with a smile.