In the Faculty Spotlight this month is Dr. Joseph Sorg, an Associate Professor whose research focuses on Clostridium difficile physiology and virulence and who was recently awarded a $7.5 million NIH grant (in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston College of Pharmacy) to understand what predisposes individuals to C. difficile infection.
Joe Sorg received his bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Purdue University before moving to graduate studies in microbiology at The University of Chicago with Dr. Olaf Schneewind. Subsequently, he trained as an IRACDA postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular Biology & Microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Dr. Linc Sonenshein’s laboratory focusing on Clostridium difficile spore germination. Joe joined the Department of Biology at Texas A&M University as an Assistant Professor in 2010 and promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2016.
In 2013, in recognition for excellence in teaching, Joe was recognized by the Center for Teaching Excellence as a 2013 – 2014 Montague – CTE Scholar. Joe’s laboratory is currently funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health / National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Describe your current line of research and explain its broader impact.
My laboratory focuses on the human pathogen, Clostridium difficile. C. difficile most-commonly infects those patients that undergo antibiotic treatment, often for unrelated conditions. Antibiotic alter the ecology of the normal colonic microbiota which results in susceptibility to C. difficile colonization and disease. Because C. difficile produces spores during its lifecycle, patients frequently recur with disease. Moreover, an environment that is contaminated with C. difficile spores is difficult to clean. Our work focuses on how the spore resumes growth, a process termed ‘germination.’ Because germination of the dormant spore is one of the first steps in pathogenesis, understanding the biology of the process could lead to germination-blocking drugs which could prevent the onset of disease.
In your opinion, what is your most significant publication and what is its meaning in the field?
When the C. difficile genome was sequenced ~10 years ago, it became obvious that what was known to occur in model organisms may be different in C. difficile. During spore germination, there are proteins that recognize nutrient availability which then trigger the germination process. Most spore-forming bacteria have these ger-type proteins, but C. difficile does not. When I started my lab at Texas A&M, I identified one of these proteins, CspC. This started us down the path of studying a novel germination mechanism which has been fun to tease apart.
When did you realize that you wanted a career in academia?
I considered academics from the time I did undergraduate research at Purdue University. I thought running a lab would be a fun and teaching students in the lab environment, doubly so. When I started my postdoc at Tufts University School of Medicine I was fortunate to be a fellow in the Training in Education and Critical Research Skills (TEACRS) postdoctoral program. This NIH-sponsored program was to help train postdoctoral fellow how to teach effectively and balance their research and teaching programs effectively. This program solidified that academia is where I belong.
Who/what had the greatest impact on your decision to focus your research on Clostridium difficile spore germination?
My graduate mentor, Dr. Olaf Schneewind at the University of Chicago, gave me a nudge in that direction. When it came time for me to think about postdoctoral studies, I was looking around at different topics and I had a couple in mind. C. difficile pathogenesis was on the list and he suggested that entering a field that was beginning to explode would be a great opportunity for a young scientist. He wasn’t wrong. C. difficile research has taken off in the past 10 years. To focus on germination, when I interviewed with Dr. Linc Sonenshein at Tufts University he had a project that sought to understand how C. difficile spores initiate the germination process (i.e., what were the signals that triggered it? Could it be inhibited?). Both Linc and Olaf have been great mentors and I’m fortunate to have been in their labs.
Describe strategies that you use to create an inclusive research environment for your students.
Everyone in my lab has an equal voice. Though some members of the lab are quieter than others, everyone’s thoughts are heard on each other’s projects. Though they are students, they are colleagues and I treat them as such.
Tell us about your teaching methods and philosophy.
For me, student involvement is the most important part of teaching. Having participation in the classroom forces the students to think around problems or recall topics taught earlier in the course. This helps the students build upon what they have learned previously and reinforces those concepts.
What graduate courses would you like to develop?
I’d love to develop a course on mechanisms of microbial pathogenesis. This topic is fun and bacteria have come up with some fascinating ways of causing disease.
What undergraduate courses would you like to develop?
As an avid homebrewer, I think a course in home brewing would be a lot of fun. There are many avenues such a course could go. From learning the details of microbial metabolism to understand the mechanisms of fermentation that yield fermentation products (e.g. alcohol or vinegar) to the history and impact of fermentation processes on humans, students would get an appreciation for how important microbes are in their daily lives.